Once Upon a River: Diane Setterfield

★★★★½

Stories are like rivers. They have sources and meanders, tributaries and backwaters, and often they change along their length, swelling from modest little stream to raging torrent. The regulars of The Swan inn at Radcot, on the banks of the Thames, are famous for the stories they weave as the great river flows past their door, but none of them has yet come up with a tale as strange as the one that unfolds in their very own inn on one dark night. It’s solstice night in the depths of winter, and a half-drowned, bleeding man staggers through the inn’s door carrying a drowned child in his arms. The man needs care; the child, all assume, is dead. But when the local healer Rita goes to prepare the child’s corpse in the outhouse, she discovers to her shock that the little girl is alive. Silent; enigmatic; self-contained. But breathing. The resurrection of this strange child immediately makes The Swan famous – such stories there are to tell, now! – but it also stirs up old griefs, losses and desires. Who is the child? And who will claim her? This is my favourite of Setterfield’s books so far: a deliciously eerie fable which blurs the line between reality and myth, and suggests that stories might – just might – come true.

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The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

★★★★

When I reviewed Bellman & Black, some years ago, several of you urged me to go back and read Diane Setterfield’s earlier novel The Thirteenth Tale. And so I have! You see, I do listen. It just takes me five years… And it was worth the wait, for I thoroughly enjoyed it. Setterfield weaves a modern Gothic tale full of mystery and tragedy, spiced with congenital madness, the crumbling rooms of a remote old house, and twins. Better still, it has a genuine bibliophile as the heroine and a reclusive writer as its enigmatic object. In fact, the whole story is a love letter to the power of fiction, which can sweep us away from the world around us, provide a retreat in hard times, and even transform our own pasts.

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Bellman & Black: Diane Setterfield

★★★½

A Ghost Story

As the clocks go back and the evenings grow colder – and we approach Halloween – it’s definitely time for a spot of Victorian Gothic fiction. I haven’t read Diane Setterfield’s very successful Thirteenth Tale, but I simply couldn’t resist the prospect of her most recent book, Bellman & Black. To my pleasure, it delivered all that it promised and I polished it off in two days. It reminds me, on a smaller scale and in a less ethereal manner, of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It has the same sense of everyday life set awry by something haunting and eerie, hovering at the corner of your eye; and it has the same sensitivity to the language of the time, giving the book an air of 19th-century authenticity without sacrificing its lively readability.

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