A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science?
Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.10 out of 5
17th January 2019 aka YESTERDAY by Random House UK
There was once an inn that say peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer.
I received a copy of this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I have a long, boring commute.
My first alarm goes off at 5.45 am and in winter it is just dreadful. I leave the house at 7.20 am and walk to the train station and quite often find myself walking in weather where the rain is hitting me from the side.
In spring and summer it’s not too painful as there’s a park that I walk through and it honestly makes my little heart sing to see the ducks and swans. I also get to say hi to the dog walkers I see each morning.
In winter it’s far too scary to walk through the park so instead I have to take the path by the road and all I get is cars splashing me and a creepy guy I don’t make eye contact with.
I also have to walk the other side. All in all, I actually walk six miles a day. Good for my health but my feet hate me.
In addition, there is a train journey. The train to work isn’t so bad but is often cancelled because the English rail networks literally can’t handle anything and the train back home is all sorts of ‘yeuch’ on account of me never getting a seat. This is problematic for both my crappy back and the fact that I have a leg oedema. Ah, health problems (I have no pelvic lymph nodes, it’s a long story).
Neil Gaiman wrote a book called, ‘Fortunately, the Milk’ and I feel like my work life would appropriately be summed up with a book called, ‘Unfortunately, the Train.’
But at least I have all that commuting time to read. Not that I always use it for reading.
For me the sign of a ‘meh’ book is one that I don’t pick up when I’m on the train. If I’d rather scroll through my Facebook feed then you’ve lost me. If I am basically running to get on the train simply because I just can’t wait to continue reading then we’re onto a winner.
For Once Upon a River, we were indeed, onto a winner. I couldn’t wait for those morning and evening commutes because I just couldn’t wait to see where this story was going.
Now why I have told you all this? Why did I meander my way to the simple statement of ‘I just couldn’t wait to see where this story was going.’ Well my friends it’s because of this:
If you hated the fact that I took an age to get to the point and you genuinely didn’t care for my mini-story or how I begun this review then you are NOT going to like Once Upon a River.
It’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with not liking that style but if you don’t like that style then you’re probably going to struggle with this book.
Once Upon a River is a story that is very much like a river. By this I mean it meanders along, drifting at its own pace, splitting into rivulets that flow off somewhere else before re-joining the main waterway.
This book does that. We are following the main plot and, like a river, the main plot goes one way. We begin one night at an inn and the arrival of a man who crashes through the door holding a seemingly dead child. This plot line is linear. This is our ‘inciting incident’ and there is a sequence of events that occur afterwards, all centered around who this girl is and who will claim her.
BUT…. we drift away as we go. We skip into the minds of a host of characters (there are a lot to keep track off), some primary, some secondary and some barely lasting a page but we slip back and forward through their lives.
By this I mean that we experience the current events of the plot with these characters but then we’ll go back to a specific point in their life before re-joining them at the present. Then we’ll go back again to another point.
It can seem confusing and rather random but each time we slip off-stream we learn something new. Ultimately what seems to be irrelevant information not only helps us understand the characters but it helps piece together the mystery of the child.
Personally I loved this approach but I get that it’s not for everyone.
What I also get wouldn’t be for everyone is the vagueness of what genre this book is. Is it historical fiction? I guess. Is it romance? There’s love of all sorts in it. Mystery? A folktale? Magical realism??
Yes, yes, yes. No. I don’t know. That is also part of its charm for me. Is a mysterious figure punting on the river a man who just happens to be punting? Is it the villagers version of Charon?
The characters don’t know so you’ll never know. If you don’t like the interspersion of ‘maybe magical, maybe mundane’ then again – this book is probably not for you. If you don’t like unclear endings, this book isn’t for you.
I will willingly suspend belief if the merging of myth and reality is done well and I really did think that it was done beautifully here. Not just in terms of how the story was constructed but how we got to drift in and out of the characters too.
This book also highlights what people are like as a whole; there are some wonderful people in this world and unfortunately there are some truly nasty ones and when our characters come across the latter it feels like this could be a Dickensian novel.
Charles Dickens was particularly sympathetic towards those who didn’t confirm to Victorian society’s incredibly limiting standards. He was also astute at highlighting their suffering and how unjust it was and there is an element here of that in Once Upon a River as well.
The story setting, while not in a time I have lived, is placed in a part of the world I am incredibly familiar with. I believe the author lives in that part of the world and in my opinion it shows. The river and the surrounding communities feels incredibly vivid and so much was recognisable to me, even down to the regular’s in the pub and how they interacted.
There were some bits I didn’t love – I wanted to spend more time in some characters heads than others but that’s down to personal preferences and some characters endings felt incomplete.
The villain of the piece and the reveal of who/ what had orchestrated some events felt a little Deus Ex Machina with the connections and there was a scene or two that felt overly dramatic and didn’t make an emotional connection with me.
Overall, this was a story within a story with a side step to more stories. I wish I had read it in summer on the banks of a river, or in a pub garden or by the park’s pond but honestly I’m just so glad I read it.