"Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield is an enchanting, exquisitely rendered fable about the parallels between a river's journey and the way people's lives intersect in a constant ebb and flow.
The story begins in a pub situated near the Thames River. Although there are many pubs in the area, The Swan is unique because people gravitate to it in order to listen to and tell stories. One midwinter night, the locals are listening to one of master storyteller Joe Bliss's stories as his wife and owner of the Swan (Margot Ockwell) is busy filling their glasses, when they find themselves in the middle of an unusual story.
A strange, monstrous form, who turns out to be an injured man, stumbles into The Swan. This man is clutching what appears to be a doll, but turns out to be a dead child. But looks can be deceiving. Rita, the midwife that the locals rely on more than any doctor, is called to attend to the man's injuries. After she stiches him up as best as she can, Rita goes to check on the small child. She confirms that she is in fact dead, but something about the manner in which she died seems incongrous. As Rita puzzles over what it bothering her, the child comes back to life.
What follows is an interweaving of stories of the lives of the people connected to the mystery girl and the Thames River. Their stories flow in and out and eventually merge together.
I can't get over the beauty of this book. There were many elements that stirred me and tore my heart into shreds--the relationship between publican Margot and her storyteller husband Joe, the story of Rita and the man she rescued that midwinter night, the bighearted Robert Armstrong with his gift for bonding with animals, and connecting them all is the legend of the ferryman, Quietly. I would say this is the finest work of magical realism I have read in a long time.
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a galley to review via NetGalley. This is a 5 Star book!
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