Book review: ‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

The Swan Inn was one of several near the head of the River Thames in southern England. Each of the inns was noted for its own specialty, the Swan for storytelling. There was the host, the regulars and the occasional stranger. Tales ranged from creative retelling the old favorites to the occasional noteworthy addition. River happenings frequently provided the basis for story and that is the case for the events in “Once Upon a River.”

The regulars were the working men of the area, many associated with river traffic. Late one winter evening, the door burst open, and a large man stumbled through, carrying what looked like a large doll or a dummy. The man’s face was battered beyond recognition, and the large “dummy” turned out to be the body of a girl that the stranger had rescued from the river as he had landed at the dock.

“Rescued” might be too strong a word, as the girl was dead, or so they were convinced. The man was in such rough shape that it took the movement of a feather near his lips to convince the crowd that he remained alive. A deep cut on his face required stitches; that and his general condition demanded the abilities of the local nurse, Rita Sunday. She was immediately summoned. After Rita had applied the necessary stitches and whatever other care could be rendered, she asked to see the girl’s body. The lack of a pulse confirmed the crowd’s conclusion. To the amazement of everyone, however, the “dead” girl reentered the room a little later. It couldn’t be, and yet it was. The dead had risen.

The girl appeared to be about 4 years old, and as the story of her miraculous rebirth from the dead spread, people began to flock to the Swan. Among those who came were the Vaughns, Anthony and Helena, whose 2-year-old daughter had been abducted two years before. Helena was so sure the mysterious girl was the missing Amelia that she immediately claimed her as their own. Doubt was cast on that claim when Robin Armstrong called the girl Alice and was convinced she was his missing granddaughter.

What of the man who had found the girl and brought her in? Who was he and how had he received so much abuse? The mystery of the abuse was solved when it was discovered that he had attempted Devil’s Weir. While technically possible, everything had to go exactly right. It hadn’t. He was eventually identified as a local photographer, Henry Daunt. The girl had come floating up as Henry was struggling at the Swan’s dock. Several early chapters end with “Something’s going to happen.”

Indeed, something is going to have to happen if we are to untangle the complications brought to the Swan by the River Thames. There are many locals that have a contribution to make to unravel the story, their story and that of the Thames.

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