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“Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield

This is a story of the Thames river in England, and the dark and twisted current of legends it carries. This is the story of those whose lives are submerged in the mysteries it beholds.

Author Diane Setterfield makes storytelling and language come alive in this book. Many of her characters are working class people who gather at the Swan, a bar next to the Thames, who turn a type of poet after dark. They are “collectors of words,” trying out new ones, weighing them on their tongues, as they tell tales of the past.

A new story begins at the Swan one night in the dead of winter when a man and young girl are delivered from the river, identity unknown, and it is questioned whether one is living or dead. The events of this evening create a story that winds it’s way through troubled waters and dredges up complicated family histories.

Traveling the Thames is a photographer, his boat doubling as a darkroom. He takes pictures with his head under a black cloth. His exposures are on glass. This brought me back to my darkroom days; I could almost feel the forced stillness during the 15-second exposures, before seeing the images coming alive as plates.

I enjoyed this book. There are a series of different mysteries that kept me wondering about the truth behind each character, and magical realism makes this story feel like a fairy tale for adults.

This book was recommended by Diane Lynch, director at Pease Public Library in Plymouth, NH. I agree with her that this is a great book for a book group. There are questions of how we deal with hardships, how we treat the children in our lives, and how time and place are important pieces in our stories.

Up Next: “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell


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