26 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

While shelving a cart of holds at the library a couple of weeks ago, I found one waiting for me.  I looked at the cover (beautiful, by the way!) but had no recollection of placing the hold.  Turning to the first page I read the opening paragraph and instantly wished I could have pulled up a chair and forgot all about work.  Don't you love it when the first page does that?

`There was once an inn that sat 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.  The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of  love.  Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation.  If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot.  The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism.  It was where you went for storytelling.`

The story is set in the late 1800s with a mysterious incident occurring on the evening of the winter solstice.  A man, battered within an inch of his life, walks into The Swan carrying a small child.  Both are soaked through; the little girl has no pulse.  Rita, the village nursemaid, stitches the man`s gaping wound and then goes to examine the corpse of the child.  Her skin is pale, her pupils dilated, she`s not breathing.....and then Rita feels a pulse the throb of a shallow pulse.  It doesn`t make sense.

So begins a fascinating thread of storytelling that kept me turning pages when I should have been doing other things.  I absolutely loved the way Setterfield created her characters, from the strong and wise Rita, a vulnerable Lily who desperately clings to the hope that things will come right one day.  Robert Anderson with his large pockets filled with treats to delight the children and animals he meets along the way.  The best sort of man.  And then there are characters best steered clear of; the sort who take advantage.

This is a book to get lost in; a fusion of Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.  Setterfield`s ability to create a village so clear in my mind  that I could feel the dampness of the ever present river and see the low light of a candlelit pub in the evening makes this such an atmospheric read.  And then there`s her creation of an eerie legend about a man named Quietly who retrieves bodies from the river`s current while weaving his punt back and forth in the night`s mist.  If someone is very lucky, Quietly will see an unfortunate villager back to the safety of the shore before meeting their end in the water.   

The less revealed in this post, the better.  There are so many layers and delightful turns to this story, they`re best waded through in blissful ignorance.  I absolutely loved this book and can`t recommend it highly enough for perfect `cuddle up` reading this winter.  While we were at Ben McNally Books in Toronto the other day, my husband heard a woman ask for a good book to read over Christmas.  The salesperson pointed to Once Upon a River and said `This is the one`.  I couldn`t agree more.

I have no idea who to thank for their review, glowing enough to make me place the hold, but thank you wherever you are!  Now it`s back to Miss Buncle`s Book, rudely set aside because of the looming library due date for this book.

8 comments:

  1. I really like Diane Setterfield's writing and hope to get to this soon. I'm glad to hear that you liked it as I wasn't sure about it when I read the synopsis!

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    1. Oh you're in for a treat, Anbolyn! I must have had my nose so deeply into C20 books that I missed out on The Thirteenth Tale, but I have a copy now. All the best!

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  2. This is the second super-glowing review I've seen of this in two days, so will have to get look it up...

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    1. It's about 350 pages longer than your usual read, Simon, but the storytelling makes this book a page-turner. Perfect winter reading!

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  3. What a great review! I'd be honoured if you would share this with everyone over at Books You Loved: January edition. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

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  4. Thank you, Jane! And Happy New Year!

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  5. Oh this sounds good. I believe the author is visiting my town for a reading so I will try to go.

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