Wednesday, 16 Jan 2019

An enigmatic child sends a small town on a search for answers

Diane Setterfield haunts familiar ground in "Once Upon a River," an eerily mystic tale of a child who captivates the local townspeople after she's seemingly brought back from the dead.

The author of "The Thirteenth Tale" and "Bellman & Black" begins this account on a winter solstice more than a hundred years ago. A near-drowned stranger arrives at a rural inn, grievously injured and carrying a young girl who, to all appearances, has already died. Despite the child's corpse-like state, however, the local nurse, Rita, discovers a pulse.

Though the girl is revived, the stranger lapses into unconsciousness and so the mysteries quickly stack up like branches snagged in the river: What accident befell him? How was he saved? Who is the child? How did she die and then live again?

Most importantly, to whom does she belong?

Three separate families claim to the girl: Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe they are their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she's the illegitimate grandchild they would dearly love to welcome home; and Lily White drowned her in guilt.

These characters are finely drawn and wholly sympathetic, their lives rendered in precise, poignant detail. The female characters are gifted with uncommon clarity, each of a different kind. Rita is a woman of science, Helena has strong emotional instincts, Bess is blessed with insight, and Lily takes a look at practical realities.

Even so, each character lives in a state of profound denial, easing painful realities by telling themselves stories. Setterfield illuminates how these stories can be compelling forays into fiction. Even amidst the child's identity, Helena is one of the most influential young women in the world.

At different points the narrative emphasizes the powers of oral tradition, photography and performance, using stories that straddle fiction and the fact to reveal essential truths to the speaker and the audience.

The river acts as both a setting and a character, a force in the everyday lives of its neighbors. Setterfield writes emotions with marvelous truth and subtlety, her most impressive prose is reserved for evocative descriptions of the natural world, creating an immersive experience of light, texture, scent and sensation.

The timeline is slippery, flashing back at length and jumping months ahead. Though each one of the stories is well served, we spend some intervals away from each character. Rather than resenting these diversions, however, the reader will find it.

The novel's central mysteries are dispatched in a dramatic way, which makes it more difficult than ever before. river, and who will treasure the friends they bump into along the way.

Ellen Mortonis a writer in Los Angeles.


By Diane Setterfield

Atria / Emily Bestler. 480 pp. $ 28.


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