Mythology and Mystery: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River

ONCE UPON A RIVER AUDIO COVER-upon-a-river-coverA Novel
By: Diane Setterfield
Narrated by: Juliet Stevenson
Length: 16 hrs and 27 mins
Unabridged Audiobook
Release date: 12-04-18
Language: English
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio

I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.


My Take Oblong Shaped


I’ve never thought much of the Thames outside of London, and I had not thought much about transportation outside of trains once they were invented, nor have I thought about how that in between era between trains and cars; a time when boats, and horses were still a huge part of life.  DIane Setterfield has obviously thought about that era quite a lot.

This is a book of intricately woven stories and mysteries centered around several families. As the description above says three little girls are mysteriously lost.  So, when one shows up, she must be one of those those three, no?  Some are skeptical, scientifically and otherwise.

Today we know a child can appear drowned and beyond redemption and yet, because of the way the body responds to cold, come back to life.  That is one reasonable way of understanding what happens to the little girl: she was suffering from severely reduced body temperature.

And recent tales of children escaping from kidnappers after years are prevalent enough that this may also seem plausible.

But, those are the easy answers to the missing children, and you won’t want easy answers  because of the lush and delicious way this story is told and the complex way in which the mystery is unpacked. Today, the events of these mysteries would be very, very different; dive teams, forensics, and other forms of detection would be used. Nothing outside of science and accepted procedures would be countenanced.  Back then it depended on some policing, but in this case, it seems as if plain curiosity, and the sure understanding that something is not quite right, are the keys to unraveling the mystery and allowing the mythology.

The story is also a beautifully capture of English, country life, of an age where stories of a ferryman carrying the dead to their final rest are not entirely discounted. I liked how the people portrayed are not all aristocrats, servants, or the destitute.  There’s a man of such goodness who’s way with people and animals makes him on of the most engaging characters I have read in ages.

And, I liked the local nature of the mythology.  To be sure, the ferryman is a fairly universal figure but this one is pretty specific.

Much of the success of the audiobook is due to the excellent narration. Stevenson’s voice is rich and resonant. The cadence she uses reminds me of some of the best narrations I have heard . She both simply narrates and give the characters voice, but does not overact. 

And, of course the rest of the success of the book is the excellent writing. It’s a bit Dickensian, but it’s told in modern rather than period language; it is very accessible.

I really enjoyed this one – it’s engaging, well-written, and at 16½ hours,  it’s a good value for an Audible credit.  It gets my strongest recommendation, I am pretty sure I will read it again.


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