On the longest night of the year, sometime around 1850 or so, at The Swan, an ancient inn near the source of the Thames, the regulars gathered for warmth, shelter, spirits, and storytelling. Late in the evening, a man came to the door carrying what they assumed at first to be a puppet or a doll. Wounded and soaked to the bone, he fainted and they discovered he was carrying a girl who was perhaps four years old. Rita, the local nurse/midwife was fetched to care for them, though the girl was presumed dead. However, they both recovered. The girl did not belong to the man, John Daunt, he had rescued her from the river. She was claimed by three different families.
There were the Vaughns whose daughter Amelia was kidnapped two years ago and never returned. There were the Armstrongs whose granddaughter Alice was believed drowned by their daughter-in-law the night she killed herself. Then there was Lily White who thought the girl was her younger sister, Ann, though Lily’s age made that improbable. The girl never spoke and seemed content with the Vaughns and the Armstrongs, but when people were honest, always seemed sorrowful. Through the course of a year, the stories unwind and the truth of what happened to Amelia, Alice, and Ann becomes known, but what about the truth of the silent litle girl?
Once Upon a River is a story that winds like a river from person to person and back again, following them through a year of wondering and seeking answers to the mystery of the little girl and of how to live in this world. There is this fantastical mystical quality in the writing as though it is a fairy tale, but there is also always the mundane explanation and answers that leave you wondering, is there some otherworldly magic at play or not.
Setterfield does not falter once in creating the mood of a story being told aloud. There’s that intimacy of shared curiosity and anticipation a great storyteller can create. When reading, the book seems to be spoken aloud because it is a story first, last, and always.
I did not want to finish Once Upon a River because it is going to be one of those books that are hard to recover from. You know what happens when you read a truly great story. The subsequent books are just not satisfying because you know how good a book can be. It’s like eating a chocolate truffle and then a brownie. The brownie is delicious, but that memory of the truffle lingers and that perfectly good brownie tastes lesser, though no fault of its own.
I received an ARC of Once Upon a River from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.