A mesmerizing tale of magic and mystery, with a river, a mystery, and a miracle at its core.

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Once Upon a River is an amazingly magical, timeless tale by Diane Setterfield. Told in a gentle rhythm mirroring the movement of a river, I was completely enthralled with the setting and characters brought to life by Setterfield. The slow, careful unfolding of the plot is a gift, wrapped in a fine cloth, being revealed out of one peeled-back fold of fabric at a time.

Like every great story, Once Upon a River begins at a slated opening—carving out a spot for the reader in the fabric of time which envelops the Thames River and its surrounding people and places. Such care is taken with each tableau, built by words thick with a moody undercurrent, as Setterfield sets about introducing all the key players to this story as though each were an island of thoughts and ideas.

One island has the Swan, an ancient inn on the river Thames and the core component to the events in the novel. The Swan is home to a large family whose own history of great storytelling precedes the events of the novel by generations. Its inhabitants, its patrons, and its ambiance, layered with decades of storytelling, lends itself perfectly for the night that sets the novel into motion.

A young girl, aged around four years, is pulled from the river by a stranger to the Swan late one night. He's severely injured and she is so lifeless the announcement soon comes that there is no hope for her. From the contents of his unconscious form, the tavern discovers the man to be Henry Daunt, and they presume the girl to be his own—until told otherwise. Rita Sunday, the woman who acts as doctor, midwife, and nurse, to the surrounding area, stitches up Daunt and sets about examining the little girl's body.

With no explanation beyond it being declared a miracle, later in the night the girl wakes, and the inn and those living nearby explode with questions and amazement. Everyone seems to feel the need to solve this mystery or be a part of it in some way. The locals around the Swan are quick to weave it into a story of wonder, for it defies explanation. Rita tries to solve the riddle with the application of science and medicine. And in the center of this is a little girl, being gently pulled in different directions.

Three families try to claim her, and the girl—who remains mute—can provide no explanation or confirmation of where she came from or to whom she belongs. Someone's younger sister, someone's granddaughter, and yet another's own daughter. The more settled you get into the story, the more it feels as though it has wrapped you up in an old family quilt—one with its own history and stories to tell. Setterfield is clearly a gifted and talented writer, but her construction of the world, characters, and atmosphere is mesmerizing; it truly was like visiting another world.

In the age when supernatural, folklore, science, and medicine were all but small tributaries leading to the future, yet to converge, Setterfield mixes them all together for a veritable symphony of magic and mystery. Each island of characters are set adrift with their introduction to the story. Once all the characters' islands have started on this river journey of a story, you understand how the rush of water carrying them on will bring them together for a crescendo of a finale.