Once Upon a River

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 22 Jan 2019

Member Reviews

Magical Realism? Yes
Great Characters? Yes 

This is the perfect book for Winter on a cold night with some coffee or hot cocoa in your hands while you read a few pages and that's all you have to know about it. Period!! 

"There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all."

*Thank you to the author and Netgalley for giving me an ARC in exchange for an honest review*
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Once Upon a River weaves multiple storylines together almost magically. I quickly fell under its spell. There is a girl at the center of the story - a girl who by all accounts should be dead but is not. Where did she come from and how has she come to be here? 

Setterfield weaves magical realism, folklore and mystery into the tale of the girl and the families who believe she belongs to them. It is a wonderful journey, if at times inundated with overly prolific writing. While I enjoyed the story, I didn't love it. There was almost too much symbolism for me and at times it definitely felt like too much but that might very well be because this is not my typical type of read. I was definitely out of my reading comfort zone with this one.
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Setterfield is such an amazing storyteller. I’ve devoured all of her books and will any she writes in the future. This book was absolutely mesmerizing. Every detail was just in depth and believable. Thanks so much to NetGalley for a review copy!
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"There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all."

I received this ARC ages ago, and kind of forgot about it. I know I am terrible, especially as Diane Setterfield is an author I deeply admire! So thank you Netgalley and Atria for an advance copy in exchange for a review. Don't worry, I also bought the audiobook!

In a small town on the Thames, there sits a bar known for the best stories. The owner's husband tells the best, and everyone in town goes to the bar to hear and tell their own stories. One night, an injured man carrying a drown child stumbles into the bar. Hours later, the girl stirs back awake. She doesn't speak, and no one can figure out who she belongs to, though so many want to claim her.

Rants, Raves, and Thoughts
Like so many others who picked up this book, The Thirteenth Tale is a very important and beloved book of mine. Diane Setterfield can build an atmospheric book better than any other author I've read. This book feels like the winter cold biting at my skin, then leaning into a warm blanket in front of a fire. And the book doesn't just take place in the winter, but instead takes place over a year.

This book is slow paced through the entire book. There is never really a moment that feels like it is picking up speed, never a moment of sitting on the edge of my seat and diving into the action. Instead, it's a snowy night gently falling as you curl up for a good night in. If you cannot figure it out — this book is not for most people. If you want something action packed and adventurous, then this isn't for you. But if you want a book that is layers upon layers of characters' stories, showing how all the characters are interlaced as they try to figure out what to do with this lost girl who never speaks.

I am not usually big on magical realism — I am trying to love it more — and this book is such a good example of the genre. Is it magic? Can it be explained by science? Some of the characters try to explain it away, but sometimes you can't explain away a pig that can tell fortunes. But it doesn't matter, because you shouldn't take away stories from people and try to disprove them. These stories are the most important currency, and a way that any of these characters survive.

Final Moments
This book is incredibly hard to explain or recommend. It is incredibly hard to review, even. I will say that my biggest regret is that I didn't read during the winter. I can see curling up with the book and napping while reading it. If you love magical realism, give this book a shot. If you like fairy tales mixed in with your realistic fiction, but always feel like it's a little too out there, give this book a try.
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Not only is the cover of this book beautiful but also the writing is beautiful. I love a book with a touch of magic, romance, and mystery and this had just the right amount of all three. There were so many characters that I liked and a few I didn’t but they were needed to make the story complete. This was a bit of a slower paced novel than I typically like but it still managed to keep me interested. She has a way of bringing the atmosphere to life. 

Thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books and NetGalley for the ARC.
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Had a really hard time getting into this book that I really really wanted to love. 

Very atmospheric and mystical feeling. However, while the prose is without a doubt prolific, the story crawled at an excruciating pace with pages and pages of descriptive text. Some have commented that the prolonged details are necessary in the telling of the story, I humbly disagree. There are a ton of characters in this story and while they are all fleshed out to the nth degree, I didn't care about or relate to any of them.
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I was given this book by netgalley in exchange for my honest unbiased opinion. 

i loved the thirteenth tale and was so excited to read this book. thankfully, this book did not disappoint. it was a bit slow for me at the beginning but i mean all great gothic novels take a minute to settle into place. after the settling in, it was a wonderful fast paced ride through a novel i loved.
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Not quite what I was expecting, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the book. The description made it sound like a fairy tale with a lot more magic and such, a la "Stardust", but it ended up being a story with a little bit of magical realism and a world that left you wondering if the magic was real or something the characters imagined. The book's pace was steady, and never felt like I was about to be washed away in the plot. Rather, I felt myself floating along at an enjoyable rate.

You're welcome for the water analogies.
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I think I will be in the minority, but I really didn't enjoy this book.  The story seemed to crawl along and was bogged down with pages and pages of descriptions which I found unnecessary.  I also didn't care for the magic and religious undertones.  This one just wasn't for me.
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Setterfield’s third novel is set at the end of the 19th century and reads like a winding river that is overflowing with mystery, twists and memorable characters. 

The Swan inn by the bank of the river Thames at Radcot has a tradition of storytelling. On cold, dark nights the locals gather inside to share drinks and listen to gifted raconteurs recount popular folktales and legends. It is on one such night that an injured stranger bursts through the inn’s doors clutching the drowned corpse of a little girl. But just as the local nurse Rita Sunday is about to declare her officially dead, the little girl returns to life. Is it a miracle or something far more sinister? And who does the girl even belong to? 

Word quickly spreads around the village and soon there are several claims to the four-year-old girl. Anthony and Helena Vaughan hope to identify the girl as their daughter Amelia who had been kidnapped two years prior. Farmer Robert Armstrong believes her to be Alice, the illegitimate child of his wayward son Robin. And the middle-aged maid Lily White is certain it’s her sister Anne, despite the age difference and the fact that both her parents had died long before this four year old was born. Stranger still, other locals are convinced the girl is the drowned daughter of the ghostly Quietly, the man who ferries the souls of the dead across the Thames. 

The girl herself doesn’t speak, nor does she seem to recognize anyone. So it falls upon each of the claimants to make their best case for her. Though not everyone in Radcot is keen for the truth to come out.

Setterfield has braided a complex and captivating novel that at its heart is very much about the nature of stories and how they connect communities. Throughout, the symbol of the ever-flowing river becomes a central theme that binds the characters together and shapes the arc of the narrative. As Setterfield eloquently puts it: “A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.” And so, as each new character comes into play, Setterfield entertainingly sheds light into their pasts and present, making for a richer read.

Readers who love their novels to feature a large cast of characters will revel in the many brilliant portrayals in Once Upon a River. There are so many characters introduced within the first hundred pages or so, that it can feel quite overwhelming at first. But each individual is so exquisitely brought to life that the reader is soon intimately acquainted with all of the main dramatis personae. 

Indeed, it is a rare gift that Setterfield possesses. She is able to endow even the most bit part characters with rounded, intriguing backstories that never overstay their welcome and never read dry. In some cases the reader will undoubtedly be left wanting more. Case in point is Margot Ockwell, the landlady of the Swan, who has twelve lookalike daughters and a son Joe who wishes to grow up to be a celebrated storyteller like his father. They are such an endearing bunch that one would hope Setterfield has plans for a spin-off novella set around the Ockwells and their day-to-day life in the inn. 

The story of the good-hearted, animal loving Robert Armstrong - the son a black father and white mother - and his embattled relationship with his step-son Robin is particularly poignant. But it is arguably Rita Sunday who steals the show here. This headstrong, inquisitive woman of science begins to conduct experiments to unravel the supposed magical resurrection. With the help of photographer Henry Daunt – the injured man who stumbled into the Swan – Rita becomes instrumental in tying together the various mysteries and intrigues surrounding the families connected to the mute girl. 

While some may find the denouement overly elaborate and a little too conveniently tied together, Setterfield allows one particular enigma to remain wholly unresolved, allowing the Radcot locals (and of course the reader) to theorize and create their own offshoots and endings to this tributary of the tale. 

Once Upon a River is a spellbinding feat in storytelling. It weaves together elements of whodunnits, fairytale, suspense as well as Jane Austen’s domestic stories to create something very much of its own.
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I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased opinion.

On a winter solstice in 19th century England, a night of drinking at the Swan is interrupted when an injured man shows up, holding a dead girl in his arms.  No one knows who they are.  Two hours later, the girl returns to life.  Who is she?  Lily White recognizes her as her younger sister, Ann.  Robert Armstrong believes she is the daughter of his oldest son, Robin, thrown in the river by her mother before the mother killed herself.  Helena Vaughn recognizes her daughter Amelia, kidnapped two years ago and not seen since.  The regulars at the Swan love stories, and now they are living an epic story of their own.

Despite all the events taking place on or near the solstices and equinoxes over the course of a year, this was a slow-paced story.  Setterfield is clearly a capable writer, but I just felt indifferent to this book.  I generally love magical reaslism, but for me, the magic was missing in this story.
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Note: I received a free copy of Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Swan, an inn somewhere along the River Thames, is a hotbed of stories. Everyone who comes in either wants to hear stories or tell them. And then, one night in 1887, the Swan becomes the setting of one such magical story when an injured man stumbles in carrying a dead girl. Only, just hours and pages later, the girl is somehow alive. So starts a story of stories and the mystery of who the girl is and where she belongs.

Throughout the story we are introduced to many different characters, all with different backstories of their own but, through the child, the stories are interwoven into one. There are two families who are missing children and want to claim the young girl for their own. There's a nurse, the man who discovered the child in his boat, the inn owners and their extended family, and a woman who was broken at a young age and tries to handle her life while still under her brother's nasty rule. 

There's also a local myth about Quietly whose story discusses life and death and who pops up over and over again throughout the course of the tale.

This was beautifully written and very character driven and thought it took me a long time to read because of the intricacy of the plot I really loved it.
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It's hard for me to write a review of this. On the one hand, it was very special, with lots of twists and turns. On the other hand, the slow pace made me put it down and pick it back up multiple times.
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This is a well-told story that I simply couldn't get into. It's interesting enough and the writing is good, but I felt that it really dragged along at times. But I would recommend it to those who like the slow, meandering tales that don't divulge secrets until the end. Because that's how long it takes - the mystery established at the very beginning doesn't get resolved until the final couple of chapters. But it was relatively satisfying how things turned out.
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Oh my goodness, this story was an unexpected little gem.
I adored it so much. Magical realism is a sub-genre that I rarely pick up on purpose, but when I do I'm always reminded of how much I love it and it makes me incredibly happy.
This story is a beautiful little fairy-tale-esque mystery that is completely captivating from start to finish. You are constantly trying to figure out exactly what is happening, while also being wrapped up in the lives of all of the characters within the story.
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This ended up being a super interesting read that circled the influence of the river that runs this rural village.  Set in an unidentified historic time period where the local tavern is the center of town, a mysterious child is saved from the river.  She could be the missing daughter of the local prominent family whose child was kidnapped two years ago or the missing child of a local conman.  Families are thrown into turmoil while the villagers get to enjoy the resulting new stories and speculation.

A novel that delves into the stories we tell ourselves, the imagine people show the world, and the mysteries and meaning of life.
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This is a fairy tale kind of a book with lots of characters, folk lore, and a magical atmosphere.  It's rather slow reading but beautifully written.

It's an interesting book but I didn't like it as much as I did 'The Thirteenth Tale' by this author.
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It took me a really long time to finish this book, longer than usual.  I’m not sure if it was because I was preoccupied with real life, whether the beginning just didn’t grab me or because I was reminded of the “Snow Child” so couldn’t read on—maybe a little of all. 

In the beginning I couldn’t wait to start reading it & was so happy after being granted pre-release reading approval.  I so loved “The Thirteenth Tale”.  Then I just got stuck.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the gothic setting of this historic community along the Thames.  The community gathering place “The Swan”, the families, the morality of many of the characters, the old parables of good & evil, the idea of eternity...  The story, once you really fall into it & allow yourself to be carried along by the current, is actually quite good.

Thank you, Attria Books, for the opportunity to read this tale.
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I enjoyed this book and had no trouble at all reading large pieces of it at a time, turning it over and over trying to make the pieces fit. But the ending was a bit unsatisfying. The chief trouble with Setterfield, if I may venture to criticize someone whose work I like very much, is that she can never quite decide if she wants to be writing about magic or not. And I get it: part of what this book is about is the nature of storytelling, and its being the domain of the reader/listener to decide what to believe. But that kind of ambiguity is a delicate trick to pull off, and I’m not sure she’s always perfectly successful at it.
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Let me tell you about a 4-year-old girl ghat was found in the river last night. Some man stumbled into The Swan with her, all bundled up but soaking wet. His face was all bashed in when he came, so he can't explain how he got there, but he remembers finding her in the river. At first, when they arrived in the bar, soaking wet, the child was dead so they left her alone to tend to her savior since he, at least, seemed like he might recover. Some time later, the child was alive again. Alive, I say. Dead, once, but alive now, with not a single mark on her body to say where she came from. And then, three families who say that she belongs to them, start showing up. One by one, everyone wants her, none can prove with certainty, who she really is. Shall I start the story again? Okay let me start this way... Once upon a river....
My thoughts as I made my way through the story:
18% completed: I'm entranced by the murkiness of this tale. The characters all seem very otherworldly and this might just the kind of story I need right now
.40% completed: I love the naming convention being used here. In several cases, the author presents the multiple identities that a single character could take - Ann, Amelia or Alice or Robert and Robin or Margot and little Margots - and I love that they could all be phases of the same person, the way a river can take on a different identity at various parts of its life cycle
.50% completed: I want to stop and start this book again so I can experience a second time this intricately woven story.
Final thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed both the story and the storytelling in this kind of mythological tale about a girl who seems to return to life from death, kind of like a river goes through phases of existence many times. At its center is a discussion of belonging, and what claim we ultimately have on other people and indeed nature itself, since none who try to claim this girl can actually prove their connection.  Ultimately, however, since the story isn't so much about the girl herself, but of what she represents, I also loved how artfully the author presented the legend of the ferryman who plies the river between life and death and what these passageways mean for humanity, the powerful force of water, what it provides, what it takes, the detritus it collects and eventually deposits and what it leaves behind when it departs.The story is set around the banks of the Thames in England sometime during the mid 19th century and also discusses some of the social issues of the time - the impact of slavery and domestic abuse, gender inequality and the role of religion in the lives of people.I highly recommend this impressively constructed, entrancing tale for what it says about the fluidity of life and the transmutation that it hints at but more so about the power of a story to change both the person who tells and who hears it.
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