Once Upon a River: A Novel

“Something is going to happen.”

It is the long night of the winter solstice and a group of Thames riverbank dwellers have gathered together in their favorite pub, the Swan, for comfort and conversation. Their favored entertainment is the exchange of well-told stories. Into their midst arrives a badly injured stranger, bearing the body of a young girl, and this new novel by Setterfield, author of the earlier The Thirteenth Tale, begins.

How could the child first appear to be dead and then later, living but unspeaking? Who is she? Could she be one of three missing children who have been lost on the river, or is she a gypsy girl? And most troubling of all, where does she belong when she is seemingly content, but never happy, wherever she is housed and with whoever claims her?

Several people want to claim her but there are two other people concerned about the identity of the mysterious child: Rita, a local midwife and nurse, and “Henry Daunt”, the child’s rescuer whose character is based on a real Victorian Era photographer, Harry Taunt of Oxford. As Henry and Rita travel the river, photographing the scenery and meeting people, they try to unravel the puzzles surrounding the child using their particular skills to meet old myths with modern explanations.

This seemingly simple tale frames an engrossing picture of the late 19th Century Thames and its people. Best of all, the strength of the author in replicating the oral cadences of timeless tale-telling provides a deeper dimension to the story. It is a book that begs to be read aloud. Pull your stool up to the fireplace and hear her words. Here is a magical tale for you, where “the dead and the living brush against each other” and where “the impossible start to edge closer to the conceivable.”

I love this gripping, intriguing, and beautiful book.

–Ruth Haldeman
 Longtime volunteer at the Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library Book Shop and retired AADL librarian

Featured in March 2018 newsletter