Monday, February 25, 2019

Audio: "Once Upon A River" by Diane Setterfield

Audio: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield, 2018, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Meh. The story started out ok. Then the story got dull. Then the story got interesting again.

A inn and pub on the Thames River circa 1850-or-so is a popular location for storytellers and drinkers. One winter night a man with a bloodied face stumbles in carrying a doll. Both the man and doll are soaked wet. The man collapses and everyone attends to him until the mentally disabled son of the innkeeper discovers the doll is actually a dead girl of about 5-years-old. Well, the dead girl ends up revived - her respiration was slowed by the cold - and the novel involves finding her family.

Three groups lay claim to the girl. A wealthy couple whose daughter was kidnapped and never returned. A mentally disabled housekeeper who is convinced the girl is her long lost sister - a sister who would be about 30 years old now. And a shifty guy and his honest parents who think the girl may be the shifty guy's daughter.

Setterfield shows us around all the characters. There is a growing love affair between a widower and a spinster (who is young to us). Anxiety by the Farmer Father of the Shifty Guy over the girl and Shifty Guy's shifty behavior. Rich Couple where the wife was in deep depression after daughter went missing. Lady Innkeeper with many children and a dying husband. Various locals and a couple scuzzy, and violent men.

The characters and setting are well done but did not particularly engage me. My interest would wane throughout the book. Setterfield does cover some other things that interested me.

Setterfield writes a lot about the weather.  The story covers a calendar year, winter-to-winter, and Setterfield writes of the rain, heat, cold, mud, tides. The weather is so much more of an issue for a more agrarian economy and the commerce and transport that rely on good weather. I was listening to this one day as I walked to work in freezing rain. I use slip-on spikes/crampons for my shoes to keep me from sliding all over but the going is still slow. Without good gear of rain coat and pants it would be a cold walk.  All the people in cars passing by me had no trouble on the recently plowed and salted roads. And, of course, the cars deliver you in relative comfort from -25° (which we just had) to 110°. Setterfield incorporates those needs into the characters' daily lives.

Another topic is the quickness of death from accident and disease. Sure, we know about the young mortality and the poor treatment of children but well done fiction brings those things home.

Comments and spoilers:
1. I knew pretty soon that Shifty Son would be running a con job on the rich people. Setterfield takes awhile to show this. There is a reveal at the end about Shifty Son's biological father that I did not see coming.
2. The reveal the Rich Couple's daughter was found dead by the husband after he paid a ransom was a surprise.
3. The is a supernatural ending that just did not make much sense. The revived girl is the daughter of The Ferryman who pulls people from the river. He either sets them ashore alive or transports them to death. The supernatural element was discussed a couple times in the novel but was treated as superstition. One drowning victim in the novel sees the ferryman reaching down for him but I figured that as a oxygen deprived hallucination before death.
4. I have trouble typing Setterfield.

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