Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book 280: Once Upon A River

"For another hour they talked. Every detail of the day’s events was gone over, the facts were weighed and combined, quantities of surmising, eavesdropping, and supposition were stirred in for flavor, and a good sprinkling of rumor was added like yeast to make it rise."

Dates read: December 1-4, 2018

Rating: 9/10

What makes a good story? As a person who spends a lot of time writing about my reading, I think about this question a lot. It has to have compelling characters, and it has to have an interesting plot, and it has to be skillfully told. If one of those things doesn't quite come together, the experience of the story doesn't work as well as it could. But there will always be dissent on the best stories, because not everyone thinks the same things make them care about the characters, or get them involved in what's happening to those characters, or are pleasing from a audience perspective.

How to tell a good story is at the heart of Diane Setterfield's Once Upon A River. She sets her action in and around a tavern called The Swan, set along the Thames River in a generically old-timey version of England. This tavern, you see, is famous for its storytellers. One dark midwinter's night, when there are just a few people left at the tavern telling each other tales, there's a great commotion at the door. A man bursts in, bloodied and bruised, holding what at first seems to be a doll. Upon closer inspection, she's revealed to be a little girl, beautiful but dead. Her vitals are checked by Rita, a local medic of sorts, but there's no hope...until suddenly her heart begins to beat again, and her chest to rise and fall with breath. However, she does not respond to any questions about her provenance. 

Three families believe she could be theirs: Helena and Anthony Vaughn, a young couple whose little daughter was kidnapped and never recovered; Robert and Bess Armstrong, who believe the child could be the hidden offspring of their wayward son Robin; and strange, lonely Lily, who thinks the child could be her long-lost little sister. The girl silently accepts being initially placed with the Vaughns, and while Helena is ecstatic, convinced that this is her own child returned to her, Anthony remains skeptical. And Rita, who has long lived alone, finds herself drawn closer and closer to the girl she continues to monitor as she also helps the photographer who brought the girl into their lives recuperate. The tension between what all of these people want to believe and the truth keeps growing as the real history of the girl continues to elude everyone, until (of course) the stirring climax.

There's magical realism here, which isn't always my favorite, but it's applied with a light and nimble touch, serving the greater emotional truth of the story. And in a book focused on storytelling and the ways that a well-told story can entrance a reader, you're conscious of the emotional manipulation going on, but it's done so well and so satisfyingly that it doesn't matter. It feels very much like a fairy tale, with characters who manage to both be broad enough to be recognizable as archetypes and specific enough to get invested in. And there are callbacks to classic literature (Great Expectations comes particularly to mind) that add to the pleasure for the reader familiar with them, but aren't necessary to understanding or enjoying the book.

Setterfield's prose and plot work beautifully together to grab and keep attention. I honestly found it difficult to put down, but when I did and then picked it back up, it was easy to get reoriented and swept back up in it. If you're someone who's driven batty by a failure to get all plot points resolved, be warned that this book does wind up with some ambiguities. For my part, I thought it was refreshing to have a little mystery left. I really loved reading this and would highly recommend it to all audiences, it's a wonderful book that I think would have a lot of appeal to a wide variety of readers.

One year ago, I was reading: A Beginning at the End

Two years ago, I was reading: The Fever

Three years ago, I was reading: Sex at Dawn

Four years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Five years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

1 comment:

  1. I’m listening to this book right now! I really like it so far. I’m hoping for bad weather when I’m at work so the customers stay away and I can just do computer work and listen to my book. It’s definitely more interesting than work.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!