This book is extraordinary. It’s so different from anything I’ve read lately. There are quite a number of characters in the story but the main one is the river itself, the Thames. It was no surprise to learn that the author lives by the Thames, near Oxford, because this novel is infused with love and respect for the river.
The premise of the story is that a little girl is rescued from the river. She appears to be drowned and then comes back to life. But she doesn’t speak and it’s not clear who she belongs to – there are at least three possibilities. The narrative explores the stories behind the individuals whose lives are touched by this event. We do eventually find out what happened, although there is a veil of mystery, myth and possibly magic over it all. I actually enjoyed the second half of the book better than the first. It took some time for me to remember who the different characters were and the pace seemed to slow, before picking up again later on. I was confused as to how the people, events and locations were connected, but I just went with the flow (pun intended) and sure enough it made more sense the more I read.
There was a hint of Thomas Hardy in the rural and small town settings, the pub environment, the narrator’s confident ownership of the story and the theme of uncertain identities. I also detected hints of Sarah Perry and Philip Pullman.
I liked the focus on storytelling. Not only is Diane Setterfield telling this story to us, the characters are telling stories to each other, and the one we have just read will be passed along until the tellers have been forgotten but the story will live on.
In summary this is a wonderful, moving and atmospheric novel which is worth diving into (another pun… sorry).
Once Upon A River will be published on 17th January 2019. Thank you to Transworld Publishers for an ARC via NetGalley.