Once Upon a River (Setterfield)

Once Upon a River 
Diane Setterfield, 2019
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
480 pp.

A richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 22, 1964
Where—Berkshire, England, UK
Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of Bristol
Currently—lives in Oxford, England

Diane Setterfield is a British author whose 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, became a New York Times No. 1 best-seller. Written in the Gothic tradition, the book contains echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The novel was adapted for television by Christopher Hampton. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Olivia Colman, and Sophie Turner, The Thirteenth Tale was televised on BBC2 in December 2013.

Setterfield's second novel, Bellman and Black, was published in 2013, and Once Upon a River in 2019.

Before she turned to writing, Setterfield studied French Literature at the University of Bristol, earning a bachelor of arts in 1986 and a PhD in 1993. Her Ph.D. is on "autobiographical structures in Andre Gide's early fiction." Setterfield taught at numerous schools, as well as privately, before leaving academia in the late 1990s.

Setterfield currently lives in Oxford, England. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 1/4/2019.)

Book Reviews
Utterly enthralling.
New York Journal of Books

(Starred Review) Setterfield braids miracle and mystery in this marvelous tale.… By combining …a hint of Austen’s domestic stories, a tinge of Tolkien’s more folkloric elements, and a dash of mystery from Christie—Setterfield has created a tale not to be missed.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred Review) The heart of the story are the relationships that twist and turn, as if they also follow the river. Recommended to readers who enjoy popular or historical fiction with gothic twistse. —Jennifer Funk, McKendree Univ. Lib., Lebanon, IL
Library Journal

Setterfield fills this richly layered plot with a fascinating cast of memorable characters who weave in and out of each other's lives

(Starred Review) Setterfield masterfully assembles an ensemble of wounded, vulnerable characters.… [The book] celebrates the timeless secrets of life, death, and imagination—and the enduring power of words. Fans, rejoice!
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?

2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?

3. What is the significance of the river?

4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia’s kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, "the horror of it was quite excised." What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan? What about the other characters?

5. A wedge is driven between the Vaughans as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of Amelia. In the end, what brings them together? How?

6. How does Robert Armstrong, raised outside family life in circumstances of financially cushioned neglect, turn out to be such a good man?

7. Do you agree with Armstrong’s lament at the end of the book? (See below.) Is it possible if he had been a different kind of father things might have turned out differently for Robin?

Sometimes I think there is nothing more a man can do. A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.

8. Is Lily White responsible for her actions?

9. Consider the importance of family in the novel. What does it mean to Robert Armstrong? What does family mean to Daunt and Rita? And Victor? What about Lily?

10. It’s easy to get carried away talking about the key families in the plot, the Vaughans, the Armstrongs, and Lily and her brother, but what about the family at the inn? What important functions do they perform? And what do the drinkers—largely unnamed—add?

11. Storytelling is central to Once Upon a River. The story of Quietly the ferryman is an invention of the author, but it contains many elements from traditional or mythological tales. Does it remind you of any other stories in particular?

12. How many types or styles of story are told in Once Upon a River? Be as wide in your interpretation of "story" as you like!

13. Folk beliefs are still alive on the riverbank—changelings, witches, and dragons are all still real to some, and the Armstrongs believe Bess has a Seeing eye. What are the real-life consequences of these stories? Which characters have faith in these stories, and which do not? How does it affect their actions?

14. In the context of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, what do you make of Rita’s reluctance to marry? What brings her to reconsider?

15. Is the fortune-telling pig mere light relief or something more?

16. The identity of the girl is one of the driving mysteries of Once Upon a River. What were your early thoughts about who she really was, and did they alter as the story developed? What did you think of the way this question was resolved at the end?

17. The ending elaborates on the "return to life" of children apparently drowned. Did this come as a surprise to you?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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