Once Upon A River is a mystery set in the Victorian era, set around a section of the river Thames between Cricklade and Oxford.
On a winter solstice evening, the regular drinkers of The Swan at Radcot are disturbed when a battered man appears with the body of a child in his arms. Suspecting they are possible victims of a boating accident, the locals give the pair their assistance. All agree the child is dead, but on a second inspection, a miracle occurs and the child breaths once more.
Who is she?
Could she be Amelia Vaughan, who went missing one night and was never found? Or Mrs White’s lost sister Ann? Or Alice Armstrong, daughter of a recent suicide victim? However, the child, aged around four, has become mute, so Mr and Mrs Vaughan take her home.
The story involves folklore and superstition where the people are all connected to the river that flows around them. I enjoyed how the author kept the theme of the river in her descriptions and word choices. It was easy to empathise with the many characters and be pulled into their lives. Animals, too, play a relevant and important part.
I like a novel that has a place with meaning; a few years ago I tramped through a field in Cricklade where the beginnings of a river bubbled to the surface. This might have been the Churn which joins the Thames at Cricklade. It gave me an instant feeling of connection to this book and further reason to be invested in the characters.
If I had to choose just one character from the book which left their mark, it was Quietly, the ferryman who hovered between the worlds of the living and the dead, who drew the lines of reality and story ever closer. He brought this haunting tale to me with just the right amount of goose bumps left on my skin when I closed the book.
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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?
Replete 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.