Should you ever sit me down and force me to name my ten favourite books of all time, I guarantee that my list would include The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield – read such a long time ago that I can’t find a review to share, but still vivid in my memory in every detail. When (with thanks to Alison Barrow) I received an advance copy of her long-awaited latest book, Once Upon A River – available now for kindle, published in hardback on 24th January – I could hardly contain my excitement. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the blog tour, and to the publishers for my additional e-copy to make the reading easier for me.
THE LONG-AWAITED, SPELLBINDING NEW NOVEL FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE BESTSELLING THE THIRTEENTH TALE, A ‘MISTRESS OF THE CRAFT OF STORYTELLING’ (Guardian).
A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science?
An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.
It’s an unusual occurrence for me to struggle to write a review, to find the right words – but I’ll admit that this book almost broke me. The opening chapter is so thoroughly perfect – the story teller one step removed, the dramatic events, the wonderfully drawn characters, the way the atmosphere is created, the gentle touches of humour, the vividness of the descriptions, the hints of other worlds, the promise of the story to follow. This is a book that rewards the slow and careful reader – not a word is wasted – and this is a world in which I felt the need to immerse myself totally, allowing myself to drift with the ebb and flow of the story. With the shallowness of a serial reader, I will mention that this is a substantial book – but I was so caught up in its magic that I almost failed to notice, and felt bereft as I turned the last few pages and knew I had to leave.
The characterisation is wonderful – a large cast of diverse and meticulously drawn characters, the links between them slowly revealed as the intricate story unfolds. I particularly liked the scientific curiosity of Rita and her relationship with photographer Daunt, the precarious existence of Lily, the loving family life of the Armstrongs, the emotional power of the Vaughans and their loss. Myth, magic and superstition are woven into the story – Beth’s all-seeing eye, Quietly appearing with his barge to make the choice between life and death – and its just perfectly done, providing that contrast with the developing scientific interest of the time. The story is enthralling – it centres on the mystery and contested identity of the girl found in the river, but draws in and layers a multiplicity of other stories, while exploring the very concept of story-telling itself. And then there’s the setting – the river itself and the central part it plays in everyone’s lives, a character in its own right, flowing through the lives of the people, a powerful force that drives every event and permeates every glorious twist and turn.
An enthralling story, exquisitely told, and destined to be a classic, read and re-read by generations of readers – and I absolutely loved every moment.
About the author
Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale was published in 38 countries, sold more than three million copies, and was made into a television drama scripted by Christopher Hampton, starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave. Her second novel was Bellman & Black, and her new novel is Once Upon a River. Born in rural Berkshire, she now lives near Oxford, by the Thames.