An Victorian-era atmospheric, mystical novel set along the Thames, where the body of a child is pulled from the river. When she comes back to life, three families claim she belongs with them, but none are sure, and the little girl isn't talking.
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While a bit slow at first, I stuck with this Victorian-era novel set along the Thames and soon found myself captivated. The river itself is almost a character–a mysterious one, with an all-encompassing power to give and take at will.
When a little girl is pulled from the river, seemingly dead, and comes back to life, the mystery of her survival is just the beginning. Three families claim she may belong to them–but none are sure, and the little girl isn’t saying.
Setterfield truly creates an atmosphere, one shaped by the powers of storytelling, nature, and mysticism. I don’t always like magical elements, but when it’s done well I can go along for the ride–and Once Upon a River does it well. The magic is nicely balanced by two scientifically minded characters who bring reason to all the magical speculation.
Despite this, not every question can be answered, and the people of the time did not always get full explanations for strange occurrences. Some readers may find this frustrating, but those open to a bit of mysticism will enjoy the journey.
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.