Years ago, long before I started writing reviews and even longer before I started officially publishing them on my blog, I read The Thirteenth Tale. And I loved it. I actually don’t remember too many of the details, but the mystery and atmosphere have stuck with me to this day. So, as I was browsing NetGalley and saw Once Upon a River, with a description that focused again on Setterfield’s ability to write with mystery and atmosphere, I knew I wanted to read it. I was psyched when I got approved for a copy. And I almostttttttt finished it by the official pub date (at least I’m in the right month)! Half points to me, haha.
“…on a summer day winter always seems like something you have dreamt or hear spoken of and not a thing you have lived.”
This story takes place in a small town on the banks of the Thames. On the evening of the winter solstice, a man shows up in the door of a small pub – beaten up and holding a young girl who looks for all the world as if she has drowned. But, inexplicably, hours later, the girl takes a breath and comes back to life. No one knows what happened to her or how she and the man came to be at the door of the pub. But theories abound…and what follows is a gothic, atmospheric, slow-burn, strange and complex mystery involving kidnapping, mixed identities, photography and lots and lots of story-telling.
“…just ‘cause a thing’s impossible don’t mean it can’t happen.”
To start, I just have to say that I loved the gothic ambiance of this dark mystery. Set in an unnamed but Elizabethan-ish age in England, the cold, historical, riverside setting is perfect for this type of tale. The traditional fairy-tale like writing, and the various strains of folklore and legend woven in, fit the mood as well. In addition, I really enjoyed the way that Setterfield explores the way a story can grow and morph in the retelling, not only in a way that pushes it out of proportion with the original, but also in a way that makes space for discovery of details and explanations that were perhaps overlooked in the first retelling. It allows for comforting repetition, sometimes necessary in a mystery story like this one, where new facts and minutiae are revealed consistently throughout, but in a way that doesn’t get tedious. To that point, the little clues that are dropped to the reader are done so with a slow-burn-paced regularity that is just right. Relatedly, the interweaving of the river and story-telling (even unique kinds, like with pictures, or purposefully wielded as a tool) as themes in every part of this tale is a nice aesthetic touch. There were, perhaps, times where it was too much, where these sections went too long and I just wanted to get back to the main story, but it’s a small criticism.
“A river is a river, whatever the season.”
As for the story itself, it was the epitome of a cozy mystery novel. The drama is there from the start, with (at least) three different possibilities for who the young dead-come-back-to-life girl could be. And with so many different complicating viewpoints, personal investments and new discoveries that change your opinion on who the girl really is, it keeps you guessing all the way until the end. Plus, there are some really great side stories that develop as the pieces of the main one come together, all in fairy tale type form: with great evils and the great goods. The great evils make you upset on behalf of the innocent and the great goods make your heart smile in their sweetness, but all fit smoothly, stylistically, into the overall story. And by the end, when we get our final reveals and learn the fates of all the little girls suspected of being the drowned one, it’s very satisfying. There are many interconnections that bring all our characters’ presences in the story into clarity and we are left with nicely tied up conclusions for everyone. Again, in typical fairy tale fashion.
“When a story is yours to tell, you are allowed to take liberties with it…”
Probably my favorite thing about the entire story is the simultaneous explanations from science and from folklore. By the end, each thing that seemed unbelievable and unexplainable earlier has been, at least mostly, explained away with logic that is truly sound and believable. You can leave this story with the comfort of knowing that it was in no way fantastical; that this is fiction, sure, but not magical realism. However, if you have magic in your heart, you can also choose to ignore some of that science and hold onto the mystical. This can absolutely become a story that has a hint of enchantment for readers who want to believe that the scientific explanations are not quite enough on their own. It is this side that parallels the focus on “stories” that is present throughout – and how the version of this one will change as it spreads far and wide until it creates a great legendary tale out of these very real circumstances. As a reader, and a lover of mythology and lore, this concept speaks to my heart.
“He simply exposed his retina and let love burn her flickering, shimmering, absorbed face onto his soul.”
There is an air of expectation and anticipation that is built from the very start, and a sort of supernatural pall over the story, that are just wonderfully crafted. This book truly has that atmospheric quality that makes you feel as if you are completely enveloped in the story. I enjoyed this one and, if you are looking for a snug-in-the-blankets, light-ish winter read, this would be a great choice!