I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this novel but entered into it with cautious optimism. I love The Thirteenth Tale but was disappointed with her follow up Bellman and Black. While it was gorgeously written with lots of interesting historical detail, it lacked the same emotional intimacy as the previous one.
While Once Upon a River has a wide cast of characters, they are all easy to get invested in. It’s a slow build, and starts one evening in an old inn on the river. This inn’s appeal has always been its love stories, and the current inn owner’s husband is one of the best story tellers. This evening, however, the inn and its patron finds themselves in the middle of a story when a tall man bursts in with a dead young girl and collapses.
When the town midwife/nurse comes to help the wounded man, she also checks on the child’s body and discovers that the girl is alive. Of course, this sparks stories of the miracle of the girl who died and lived again. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak so it’s hard to tell where she actually came from. Two potential candidates quickly make themselves heard: the Vaughans, a well to do local family, whose daughter Amelia was kidnapped two years before, and Robin Armstrong, a man in his 20s, whose estranged wife recently died and whose daughter is missing. A third woman believes the girl is her baby sister, but she doesn’t make a public claim, knowing how little she has to offer.
As the novel progresses, Setterfield dives into the back stories of these people and their families with Rita, the mid-wife and Daunt, the man that brought the girl in, being the anchoring points of the story. My favorite character by far was Robert Armstrong, Robin’s father, a gentle giant with an incredibly open heart and capacity for caring.
I liked how Setterfield would add details with each chapter rather than revealing everything at once, creating small surprises and traits that went against expectations. I also enjoyed Setterfield’s focus on stories (which is another thing I liked about The Thirteenth Tale), and how they were as important a concept of the novel as the plot and characters. The river, too, is used as both a framing device and provides much of the atmosphere. There is definitely a hint of magical realism in the story, which adds to the mood but the novel also provides scientific explanations for many of the actions so it can be interpreted in whichever way the reader prefers.