Once Upon A River
Written by Diane Setterfield
Review by Jarad Johnson
We are fully into summer now, and I find that some books are best for the season. Easy, engulfing books that can distract from the oppressive heat. This is one such book. The first that struck me when I picked it up was the cover with a cool blue river snaking across the cover. Ah! Cool and blue. A summer book.
The river is not only important to the story itself; it is representative of a broader idea. I had never made the conscious connection between books and rivers, but now that I have, it seems really obvious. I live not even four miles from a huge river, and the library is not a half mile beyond that, so the fact that I never thought of this seems to me proof that I am endlessly distracted. A good story, in my opinion, is like a river. It meanders, it has subplots, but it is always going somewhere, and everything leads to a conclusion that’s bigger than the story itself. This story is exactly like that. Richly told and thoroughly engaging, it’s the perfect book for summer. (Okay…If it were winter, you could sit by a fire with it, and have a cup of tea on a snowy day…but read it now. Seriously.)
Someone else who reviewed this book described as a tapestry, and the cover looks like a tapestry with a river running through it. That really is the best description that I can think of. It combines magic and science, folklore and myth, and transports the reader to a richly developed world.
This book is a little of everything: historical fiction, fantasy, a little romance, mystery, it combines almost all the genres. The excessive categorization in fiction has always confused me; in non-fiction, the author goes into the writing process with a clear goal in mind. Fiction just doesn’t work like that, and I find that oftentimes, good novels always overlap the genres, and if most of them do that, the categorization seems excessive.
This book has all the mystery, charm and lavishness that accompanies fairy tales. I have trouble knowing where to start with the plot, because there is so much to work with, but this story begins with a little girl who has just returned from the dead. A man who is himself half-dead shows up at a pub for storytellers carrying the girl’s body. At first, the regulars of the pub think he is carrying a doll, because she is stiff and cold. The local doctor is called from her lakeside cottage, and she pronounces the girl dead, because she has no pulse. Some time later, however, the girl is alive once again. This little mystery is the start of the story.
The doctor is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole story. She moves to the town after leaving another doctor she was working for, and establishes herself by the river, and slowly proves herself an effective healer to the town. She loves books, which immediately endeared her to me. (When the river floods she makes sure that they’re looked after. I would do the same thing without a moment’s thought.)
As an aside, the only bone I have to pick with this story is that the doctor repeatedly says that she has no desire to have children, and yet the instant she looks after a child, her mind is changed. I don’t like what this implies: that people who say they don’t want children are lying, that they are incomplete in some way, and that they need only spend time with children to awaken their maternal or paternal instincts. This is a tired and worn out myth; some people just don’t want children, and if the author had left out her supposed desire not to have them, I would have no problem here, but because she chose to put it in, I think she should’ve stuck with it. There are fewer things that irritate me more than when people tell me a child will complete my life. Harumph! Tangent over.
Other than that, the novel is a great read. It has all the characteristics of a great story, and if you’re looking for a reprieve from this summer heat, a good book is a great solution. Delving into another world is, for a time at least, a way to forget about the muggy weather. Plus, all the talk of water in this one is sure to cool you down at least a little bit.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!