Book Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Stories can serve to provide an adventure, or an escape, or spark the imagination. In Once Upon A River, the author brings to light the mystery we find every day. Is it magic or is it highly developed observation? Are the monsters human or other? Is there an ‘other’? These are some of the questions we ask today and have asked for centuries. I encourage you to get lost in this tale, masterfully woven, of community and of life.

Written as a story, shared by storytellers, this book flows from a presentation by the storyteller seamlessly into the story itself. The author manages such a masterful transition you don’t realize you’ve fallen in and it’s jolting when you are brought back to the storyteller’s table. At first, the in-depth depictions of the landscape concerned me. Yet, as I navigated the events set forth, I became appreciative that I had such a broad understanding.  I think there are enough diverse characters that any reader could associate with at least one. There is one arc that feels like the author is trying to explain a personal relationship – like she’s coping with a disappointing situation and wants the world to understand her. It can make the story more personal but to me, there were points where it was a detractor. Overall, the author sets the scene and introduces the characters well.

I kept looking for magic. There were hints; there was folklore; there were happenings, but none so obvious about magic until one character. Even that magic was given a reasonable explanation before returning to the unknown realm. Yet, there are ribbons of magic throughout the story. That everyday kind of magic. The kind that makes you wonder if we truly understand the world around us. Or if we use reasonable explanations with science to make ourselves believe we understand. The science that wanders throughout the tale is precise but left whimsical, reflecting the Victorian understanding and the magic of the tale.

Once Upon A River Book Review

Following the same magical categories used in our previous book review: fanciful, possible, plausible, and real magic, this book is possible. I have a difficult time defining the magic in this story. Through some good conversation with R, I’ve settled on possible magic. The magic in the book feels real (and fake in different instances) but I’m not 100% sure in either instance, so it goes in the possible category. It’s interesting because it delves into the blurry edge of science/magic in the Victorian era. This blurry edge is totally natural; not Hollywood theatrics, except a very few (3 to be exact) parts that are obvious. Those aren’t the magic that’s in the story, they’re separate actions. So the largest portion of the book contains no magic at all, just a weaving of the local tales that explain things the characters may not solidly understand or have a scientific explanation for. And that may be the most confusing and contradictory paragraph I’ve written in the last few years! #sorrynotsorry

This is a story of families that are good, bad, narrow, broad, unexpected, and traditional. This is a story of community. This story is about lives touched by an event. This is a story of grief and of joy, of fear, forgiveness, and even a little adventure. This story is a mystery but also historical fiction. The artist’s unique love of photography is a good example of science in magic. This story is not what I expected. It brings the reader into the lives of the characters and exposes their secrets. This is a slice of life story, we as the reader are invited into this piece of the characters’ lives. Many thanks to R for helping me discover the theme and the style as I’m, even now, a little caught up in the story.

~H

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