* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia *
Reading Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield was like sitting at the foot of a legendary storyteller on a wild and stormy night. I was in expert hands, hung on every word and instantly fell into the story being told.
Set in the 1800s on the river Thames, the story starts at an ancient inn at Radcot called The Swan. At the time, if you wanted music, gambling or brawling you could visit a number of other inns, but the specialty on offer at The Swan was storytelling.
The stories told were passed down through generations, from the battle of Radcot Bridge in 1387 to more recent times and anywhere in between. Some of the stories had alternate endings or different beginnings, but the locals who frequented the inn loved to tell them and loved to listen to them being told.
It's in this setting that a man stumbles in one night dripping with river water and a young girl in his arms. She is dead and he is close to it, but hours later she comes back to life. Those present struggle to comprehend what has happened and who she might be.
The girl's identity is the mystery gently driving this atmospheric novel forward, and the elements of myth and folklore kept me glued to the page. And just like the river itself, the story meanders along at times, sometimes appearing deep and dark and others sparkling with insight or forging destructive new paths.
Diane Setterfield is a favourite author of mine, having adored The Thirteenth Tale in 2006 and her writing style has only improved since then; if that's even possible. I loved being addressed by the author occasionally as 'dear reader' and although it's not a new construct, it works perfectly here. It reminds the reader the novel is just another 'story being told' and builds on the layers of stories already being told at The Swan.
Once Upon a River is dark and gothic and reads like a fairytale re-telling at times. It's definitely a serious contender for my Top 5 Books of 2018. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is available in December 2018.
My rating = *****
P.S. I learned after reading this that The Swan Inn and Radcot Bridge are real locations and are just as I imagined. In fact, Radcot Bridge was built around 1200 and claims to be the oldest crossing of the river Thames. This, together with the fact that I read this while in London further added to my enjoyment.