At its heart, Once Upon a River is a story about stories. How they begin, how they are told, and how they evolve in the telling. This story begins at an ancient inn in France, right along the Thames, in about 1887. The Swan at Radcot has a history of storytelling; it is a place where people gather to get drunk and hear and tell stories as they travel along the river.
On the longest day of the year, the Swan is packed with drinkers and stories, when the door bursts open and a man comes in carrying a young girl who is declared dead by the local nurse/doctor, Rita. But before the night is out, that girl draws breath again, as if by magic. Rita, though, is a woman of science, and she will out the truth.
By the next morning, the story of the girl who died and came back had spread across the land, and there were at least two families with lost daughters who came to see if she was their own. Strangely enough, almost everyone who encountered the girl, who did not speak, had a strong desire to take care of her, to take her as their own. Is she Amelia, daughter of the Vaughns, kidnapped 2 years ago? Is she Alice, granddaughter of Armstrong, assumed drowned by her suicidal mother? Is she Ann, the sister of Lily, who would have died more than 30 years ago?
This story, like the Thames itself, winds and twists; we meet a large cast of characters all connected by their association with the girl found at the Swan. Setterfield has written a masterful story with elements of both historical fiction and magical realism. This period of time is rife with superstition and fortune-telling as well as great advances in science and medicine. All of these elements are used together to weave a story that dances on the very edge of fantasy.
“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.”
For instance, Vaughn goes to a “fortune-teller,” but as it turns out, she is really more of a practicer of early psychotherapy. And Armstrong’s wife, Bess, believes she has an eye that can “see” the truth of a person, so she keeps it covered most of the time. But is it really that she is just an empathetic person?
This story is definitely a “slow-burn,” and it took me quite a while to get through it. I even put it down briefly to read something else and returned to it. However, once I got about halfway through, it really picked up. There was even a really fun play- like in Hamlet- to try and out the kidnapper at one point. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end had me gasping in surprise! It was really fantastic & twisty. I always love it when I don’t guess the ending. I give it 4.5 stars!
Once Upon a River is a beautiful story that flows like the river it is set on; slow at points, madly rushing at others, but steady and constant always.