I used to read this kind of atmospheric, richly told novel imbued with a hint of magic quite regularly but for every gem like “Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke, “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower and “Things In Jars” by Jess Kidd there were many others that fell so short that they switched me off and stopped me selecting books of this type as often.
I think this is why I have not read any of Diane Setterfield’s novels up to now, if this, her third novel, is anything to go by I have really missed out.
There is outstanding story-telling here. The novel is set on a stretch of the River Thames between Cricklade and Oxford in the 1880’s centering on The Swan pub at Radcot. It is here that story-tellers meet to regale each other with tales of local folk, events and particularly the mysteries of the river and on a Summer Solstice evening they become part of their own tales when a badly injured man appears with the body of a drowned girl. Nobody knows who they are and things take a momentous turn when the dead girl comes back to life.
The repercussions of this spread along the Thames. The event and the child herself proves a great pull for some residents and this is their tale. It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality. I was spellbound by this book. Excellent characterisation of those involved on that night and those who hear about it. This is a confident skilful writer, who, very early on, like the best story-tellers will have readers entranced. A definite five star read and I am looking forward to reading her earlier two novels.
Once Upon a River was published in 2018 by Doubleday and as a 2019 paperback by Black Swan.