In this month's Randolph Reads, Research & Instruction Librarian Kelsey Molseed recommends Diane Setterfield's 2018 novel Once Upon a River:
In a time of worldwide anxiety, it can help to regularly immerse yourself in a story. Good stories pull readers into their plot and setting, and demand that we temporarily trade in our own fears and troubles and deal instead with someone else’s experiences in some other place and time. Diane Setterfield’s 2018 novel Once Upon a River is a great story to get lost in. Setterfield is a talented storyteller with a knack for blurring the lines between real life and superstition. One of my favorite books is her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006), which keeps readers guessing throughout whether the English manor house setting is actually haunted. In her most recent novel, Once Upon a River, Setterfield uses a similar tactic to hurry readers through the pages, needing to get to the bottom of whatever is going on here.
The book opens in a pub on the banks of the River Thames in 19th century England, where storytelling is the preferred pastime among regulars. Late one night an injured stranger stumbles into the pub, bloodied beyond recognition and carrying the body of a young girl. Soon, miraculously, the dead girl awakens, though she either cannot or will not speak. Throughout the following year, the community attempts to answer the questions surrounding her arrival. What happened to her? How did she wake up after she'd clearly been dead? Who is she? Is she the missing daughter of a local wealthy family, kidnapped in the middle of the night two years prior? Is she the abandoned granddaughter of a farmer from a nearby town? Is she a ghost from the past life of the recluse who works in the parsonage?
Setterfield keeps her readers interested with a cast of characters who have stakes all over the story, and a series of events that are just barely plausible and demand an explanation. She offers a plethora of possible theories for the fascinating story that unfolds, and the reader must consider which are most feasible. As with her earlier novel, you can’t be sure whether or not you’re reading a ghost story until the very end, and even then there’s room for interpretation. In this page-turning manner, the book explores themes of belonging, loss, love, and human nature, all while familiarizing the reader with the idyllic English countryside of the historic River Thames and the people who might once have lived there.
This book would make a perfect summer read. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a suspenseful (but not gory) mystery, a dip (but not a full dive) into the paranormal, or just plain good storytelling.