December Book Group - Once Upon a River

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
December's choice is Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River
This was my favourite books of last year, satisfying plot, memorable characters, and a convincing setting. Hope as many of you as possible can join in, questions a bit later in the month.

Comments

  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I'm already several chapters in and loving it!
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I'll join in this month. Sounds like a book I will enjoy.
  • I'm in too. Looking forward to it.
  • I'm so relieved some people are reading and enjoying this. Should be a good discussion later in the month. In the meantime here is a link to some information about Godstow. I thought it was interesting that is the setting in this book and Pullman's The Belle Sauvage, but looking at the pictures I can see why writers would be drawn to it.
  • Oooo, and it is on Libby, the library e-book app. I rarely can find the books so quite pleased. Will jump right in and get reading.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    Lily Pad wrote: »
    Oooo, and it is on Libby, the library e-book app. I rarely can find the books so quite pleased. Will jump right in and get reading.

    Our library had a six-month wait to get it through Libby so I caved and bought it instead, as I wanted to read it in time for this discussion.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    In. Finished part One last night. The nurse is still the character I find most interesting though the butcher isn't bad. I sure hope they figure prominently in the rest of the book.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I'm near the end of Part One and loving ALL the characters and the whole world of the book. I've read and enjoyed two of her previous books and had forgotten how much I love her writing.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    It hadn't occurred to me that Once Upon A River was a mystery until I was almost half way through it. Not a favorite genre but the characters, setting and issues raised makes it interesting.
  • Had hoped to have my hands on a copy before now, having put a library request in ages ago, but someone is risking the mother of all fines and holding on to it. Boo! Will keep fingers crossed for later in the month.

    BTW, this happened with last month's book where all the copies were in schools' libraries. Foiled again.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    Just finished it. Loved it so much. Looking forward to discussing it.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    Only just finished part 2. @Trudy would you classify this book as a mystery? I've never read one before this if that is what it is. I have to say I'm beginning to see the characters as lacking much real depth. Almost as though the characters evolved to justify their required actions. Well I'll certainly see it through but I don't see myself becoming a fan of the genre. Still hoping to be pleasantly surprised though.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I don't know that a true mystery fan would consider it a mystery. It has elements of mystery, for sure, but also elements of magic realism, which may be more apparent when you get to the end ... shouldn't really say more for fear of spoilers!
  • I think what sort of story is this is a good question. I'll remember to ask it when I publish some questions on or around the 20th.
    Don't worry @ArachnidinElmet and anyone else who hasn't laid hands on a copy yet. The thread will stay open into next year.
  • Still not catching on to it very well. Seems like a lot of words and description with not a lot of action.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    Nearing the end of section 3. It remains a pleasant read. Since I do most of my reading on a stationary bike at the Y and in bed before turning the lights out, the story will be over all too soon. Definitely does pull one along.
  • Intrigued by this so I bought a copy today and will join in. May be late finishing so don’t wait for me!
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    Only the last titled section of the fifth and final part remains but I am out of time now at the Y. Wonderful read.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    Finished it last night. Will have it reserved through the end of the month. Lovely story. Not sure what to make of the seemingly magical bits except the magic seems to be strongest in the minds of the least educated while for the few with wider learning it is merely a challenge to their understanding and not necessarily to their worldview. Interesting in a number of ways.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I finished today. I found the start a bit slow, but read the last half a lot faster to find the answers to all the mysteries. Nice to read a book with mostly happy endings! I also enjoyed reading about an area where some of my ancestors are from and was surprised to find out from the author's note that Harry Paintin, a very, very distant relative, helped save the photos of Henry Taunt, on whom the Daunt character was based.
  • I'm finding a re-read interesting. I'll probably post some questions tomorrow or Thursday. After that things might start getting a bit busy with Christmas preparation.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    No doubt, @Sarasa. I've decided I'm going to read Mathilda by Roald Dahl with my niece and nephew over their holiday break. They both read aloud very well so I figure if we gang up on it by taking turns, we can read through it over the course of a few visits. Unfortunately, two other holds have come available at the same time, City of Girls and First Man in Rome. I'll pick them both up, look them over, pick one and return the other. I'll also hang onto Once Upon A River at least through the end of the month.
  • I finished my re-read this afternoon, so here are some questions. Not everyone will have finished it, so please flag up if your post contains a spoiler or two. As always answer as many or few as you fancy, and feel free to add your own questions.

    1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?
    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.
    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.
    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?
    5. Any thing else you'd like to add
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    edited December 2019
    1 - I'm not sure how best to categorize it. I'm too unaccustomed to mysteries to say if it fits there. Seems to me that she intended it as a straight up novel, one that features story itself. From the remarks she makes at the end it seems she would have us assume the child's resurrection falls within the natural world. It is the story telling that tends to veer toward the fanciful.

    2 - You can say that again. There were times I wished I'd been taking notes. But in the end it seems they all supported the story and the strain on the brain never managed to wreck my satisfaction with the book.

    My favorite character is still the nurse and I'm still a fan of the butcher, Armstrong. But part of what the story accomplished was to redeem the wealthy couple (sorry, the book isn't to hand at the moment.) It was interesting the way the author merged all the many daughters of the Inn Keeper Molly, and at no cost that I can see; so she was trying to spare us too great a proliferation of characters. The photographer went from being a non-person to being of a great deal more interest. The girl he rescues never really develops much individuality, though that can be chalked up to her age. One minor character who was very interesting to encounter given the time period of the book was the one who served as a psychotherapist.

    3 - I'm not critical of the breadth of subplots and one bonus is the sense we acquire of what life in that period would have been like.

    4 - I can't think of another quite like it but that might be the fall out of a foggy memory.

    5 - I found the strength of the women characters by and large refreshing. But we still get a sense of the desperation to either marry or perform one of a very small set of jobs which might give one independence. The nurse's fear of pregnancy was very understandable to me. In fact as I think about it, I'd have to say that all of the male characters lack depth except for the butcher. But I guess we have to remember that people of that time were mostly much less well educated than today with far less idle time available. Still, the women characters seem more responsible on the whole than the men.
  • 1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?
    For me, there were many elements of a folktale or even a complex fable. There were many things to learn about in terms of consequences of actions.

    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.
    There is a large cast and although there were many clues, I didn't feel strongly pulled into the story and therefore missed many.

    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.
    The insight and thoughts attributed to the pig made me giggle. I follow a couple of men who have rescued a pig and have made it into a huge enterprise of her being a family pet like no other.

    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?
    I've not read any other books by her. I kept being reminded of fairytales as I read.

    5. Any thing else you'd like to add
    I enjoyed the experiments with cold water and heart rates and so on. It was interesting to think about how people would regard the child's recovery in the days before much was understood about hypothermia and such.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Sarasa wrote: »

    1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?

    It seemed to be influenced by fables, mythology and fairy tales. The characters were all good or evil and quite stereotyped for the book to be realistic, but it was a really enjoyable read. I only got annoyed that the non-educated characters were made out to be unintelligent and bumpkinish. There was also the romance plot between Daunt and Rita Sunday that followed the usual sequence of their being an obstacle in the way of their love and uncertainty over whether they would form a relationship.

    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.

    I didn't find the cast of characters too big. I got a bit confused between Ann, Amelia and Alice as to which girl was which due to all the A names. The minor stories of some of the witnesses in the Swan could probably have been left out without affecting the story too much.

    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.

    Given the genre, I liked that it tied everything up nice and neatly with lots of happy endings and problems resolved. Although Rita and Daunt tried to find scientific explanations for it all and Rita never really believed in magic or miracles, I believe the girl was the Ferryman's daughter and was magical. I liked the way she reflected what the characters wanted her to be, which would be creepy if she was an ordinary human child and seemed to be sent to help the main characters gain justice, resolve family problems etc.

    The Alice story line was a bit contrived. Why would the man whose boat she fell in not just stop in the town and try to find out who she belonged to or put her into the care of authorities close by? Perhaps that was all part of the magical coincidences in the book though.

    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?'

    I found echoes of other real cases where children survived near drownings in icy water, but don't know how much Setterfield was influenced by these. I recently watched the Christian movie 'Breakthrough' about a boy who was dead for an hour after falling through ice and being underwater for 15 minutes. Rita Sunday would probably puzzle over that case too, as even modern doctors don't understand why John Smith did not die or once surviving recovered with no ill effects. Apparently the water should not have been cold enough to protect his brain as happened. This website has more about the movie and how it compares to the real story. I did suspect the miracle might have been hyped up in the movie, but apparently not http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/breakthrough/


  • We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?

    If I was working out where to shelve it in a public library I’d put it in general fiction. It has elements of all the above, but none are overriding.

    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.

    I did get confused so maybe there are too many characters. Apart from the Little Margots they are all distinct and none are unnecessary.
    I enjoyed the strength of character of Armstrong, the quick thinking and warm Rita and Daunt, and the timid downtrodden Lily. The river itself was a very vivid character. I loved the wateryness of the prose, oh, and the sensitive, intelligent pigs.

    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.

    I was jolted by the parts where the narrator speaks directly to the reader, using ‘I’. Not sure these were necessary.
    Also each missing girls’ name beginning with A, which added to my confusion.

    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?

    Perhaps The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising, which both entail seasonal description, fantastical happenings and overwhelming weather.


  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    Sarasa wrote: »
    1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?

    I would call it historical fiction with elements of both mystery and magic realism. There is a mystery to be solved -- well, more than one -- even though it's not structured like a classic whodunit. And the solution is at least partly magical -- while there is a rational explanation for what happened to both Alice and Amelia, the true identity of the little girl who "comes back to life" is given a (possibly) magical explanation, as she could be the lost daughter of the (possibly) mythical ferryman.
    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.

    Lots of characters, but not too many at all. I found them all well-drawn and engaging. One thing that I thought was interesting (as compared to most novels) was how very GOOD most of the characters were, but not in a boring or predictable way. Usually I like flawed characters, but I loved the really, truly kind, generous characters in this novel, and there were so many. Margot and Joe -- poor Joe, with his weak lungs and his storytelling, were lovely characters. Their son (Jonathan? I don't have the book in front of me) is well-drawn from the perspective of how a person with Down Syndrome would be understood and given a place in the family/community at a time when his actual disability wasn't at all well known. Rita and Daunt were great characters and I loved that they ended up together. And of course Robert Armstrong, who is such a thoroughly good, generous character that he does almost feel mythical, and his wife. I was sad that their loving family wasn't enough to save their Robin from the influence of his biological father, who I guess is the one truly evil and unredeemable character in the book. But apart from him virtually every character was both good and interesting, and I think that is such a rare and difficult thing for a writer to do.
    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.

    None of it seemed particularly forced to me, though some of it -- especially the fate of Alice and the resourceful butcher's son (also forgot his name, but great character) who went in search of her, probably strains credibility a little. But in general, the sort of mythical or fairytale-like qualities of the story covered for the times when it didn't fell 100% realistic.
    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?

    Mostly just Setterfield's other books, all of which are quite different but all of which have the same combination of realism and magic intersecting with each other in unexpected ways.
    5. Any thing else you'd like to add

    Not that I can think of -- I just really love her writing, and found it thoroughly enjoyable to read!

  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I found some minor echoes from soap operas as well, in the themes of someone who has disappeared/been kidnapped/thought to have died turning up again and characters who look alike or are confused for other characters or are hiding their identity. Also in the competition over who the child belonged to, except in a soap opera it would have brought out the worst, rather than the best in all the competing characters! In the book only Robin Armstrong and Victor Nash and their accomplices were as villainous as soap opera characters.
  • Some great comments. I’ll add mine when I can use my laptop again. Our internet and tv have been down for the last two days and counting due to damaged cables. Grrr
  • Hurrah internet is back!
    1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?
    I think I'd agree with my fellow librarian @Tree Bee here in that the book does not obviously fit into an easily defined category. To my mind a mystery story has a protagonist trying to sort out the mystery, and here some of the characters, at first, were trying to ignore that there was a mystery at all. As to it being historical fiction at first I wasn't quite sure what period it was set in. The pub could have been at any time from the middle ages onwards. It was only when photography was mentioned I got an idea of the period. Setterfield is very light on historical detail, which I think is a good thing. I get fed up with novels where the authors research gets in the way of the story. As for magical realism or fantasy, see below for comments on Pullman and the fantasy aspect. Certainly there are hints of magical realism with Quietly, but again not over-riding.

    2. There is a large cast of characters, too many perhaps? Any that you think stand out.
    Like quite a few of us I thought Rita Sunday and Robert Armstrong were both strong, interesting well-drawn characters. If you were going to turn this into a mystery series Rita would make a great amateur sleuth. I found the book a little slow to get into because of the cast of characters, but when it got going that wasn't a problem. On re-reading it all fell into place more quickly. There were one or two, Owen Albright, for instance who could have been written out and not have been missed.
    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced.
    The plot is one of the things I most admired, the way all the strands were interwoven and the way it was resolved in the end. The two things I thought didn't quite work were the set piece at the fair where Robin reclaimed 'Alice/Amelia' and what had happened to Ben, the butcher boy and Alice. Both landing on the same barge and his tracking her down all seemed to stretch my belief in the story a little too far.
    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?
    As mentioned above Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage is set on the Thames. There is a pub, nuns at Godstow and a flood, but apart from that it is different, being set in a parallel universe. I think Setterfield makes better use of the setting than Pullman, but they are both very different books. I've recently read a Dorothy Whipple book, The Priory, where one character takes her time in marrying as she doesn't want children. Not a situation I'd come across before in a novel, but I guess there must be a few where this is a theme. I like the way that stories and story telling are important to Setterfield, something that comes across even more strongly in her The Thirteenth Tale

    5. Any thing else you'd like to add
    What did people think of the portrayal of religion in the book? Although it starts and ends at the winter solstice there is scant mention of Christmas and the parson comes across as sensible and thoughtful man, but hardly one at the centre of the community in the same way the pub is. At the start I thought we were in a parallel universe where the reformation hadn't happened with the mention of the nuns at Godstow, but I don't think she intended us to think that.
  • Well, I really enjoyed this book. A few comments in answer to the questions

    1. We've already had a few thoughts about what genre of book this is. Is it a mystery, magic realism, historical novel or something else?

    It’s a bit of all of them. Certainly it’s a historical novel - set around 1870 I would say, judging by the photographic technicalities and the references to Darwin, though I’d agree with Sarasa that Setterfield is light on historical detail (personally I like to know when a book is set, but then I’m a historian!). There’s the obvious mystery of the little girl’s identity. But while some explanations are realist, others (the idea that perhaps she is the daughter of Quietly the ferryman) veer into magic realism territory, as do the references to folklore and fairytales. Not easy to categorise – but do we need to?

    2. I didn’t think there were too many, though early in the novel I did get a little confused a couple of times and have to go back and check who was who. One of the virtues of the book I thought was the range of realistic and likeable good people – Rita and Daunt, Armstrong, the couple running the pub – and the way odd behaviour, eg Lily and Helena is explained. The real baddies, Robin and his natural father, are however rather stereotypical.

    3. The plot is quite complicated, a bit like the streams entering a river that Setterfield often refers to. Any bits you think worked well or any that you thought were a bit forced ?

    Discursive certainly, but I didn’t feel it was over-long. The plotting is clever, and the various strands do come together successfully. It could have been edited back, but I don’t think there would have been much gain.

    4. On her website Setterfield says she 'is a reader first, and a writer second'. Do you find echoes of other books in this one?

    The book this reminded me of was Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, set at the other end of the Thames (and a bit further north) and about 20 years later. Both have a very strong sense of place, and good characterisation of likeable protagonists. Where they differ is the sense of time – strong in Essex Serpent with much historical detail (and a corresponding celebration of rationality), whereas without the photographer Once Upon a River could be set at least 100 years earlier.

    5. Any thing else you'd like to add?
    Sarasa’s question about religion is interesting. Perhaps the main effect of the small role of Christianity is to suggest that folkstories, and what one might call superstition has always been as strong in rural areas, and perhaps elsewhere, as formal religion.
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    edited December 2019
    Marama wrote: »
    Certainly it’s a historical novel - set around 1870 I would say, judging by the photographic technicalities and the references to Darwin, though I’d agree with Sarasa that Setterfield is light on historical detail (personally I like to know when a book is set, but then I’m a historian!).

    Setterfield sneaks that information in on page 4: "In 1387, five hundred years before the night the story began..". So I the story begins in 1887
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    edited December 2019
    MarkD , I hadn't noticed that - thanks.

    I guess they weren't first with the latest up the rural reaches of the Thames!
  • MarkDMarkD Shipmate
    You're very welcome. I also found myself wondering exactly when this was taking place and why she wasn't telling us. Then I had a feeling she had told us and went back to look for it. But the photography was the best clue. I think the magical thinking regarding the silent ferryman and the need to harmonize a story to explain the surprising occurrance 'culturally' at the inn might reflect the author's poetic assessment of our human condition.
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