Saturday, June 27, 2020
Thursday, June 25, 2020
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Atria, 496 pages, $17 (c2018)
The river flows past an ancient inn, The Swan. It is a gathering place for locals in a small rural area. The Swan is a storytelling inn. Locals gather to tell stories and hone their speaking skills. The same stories are told over and over, a detail refined here, an afterthought added there. Then one night the regulars are treated to an event that will provide sustenance for their storytelling for years to come.
It was a dark and stormy winter’s night. (Of course it was. This is a fairy tale, of sorts.) An ugly giant of a man bursts through the inn door. He is injured and would have crashed to the stone floor had not the regulars grabbed him. A strange doll was in his arms. In the hurry to tend to the man, it is a while before anyone notices that the “doll” is actually a little girl. She is dead. Her body is placed in an outside storage room. Now what can the storytellers make of that?
The inn is run by Margot and Joe with help of their good-natured son. Their other children are daughters, all of whom have left for their own hearth and home over the years. When the daughters come back to help at the inn on special occasions, the locals, not wishing to remember the long list of names, call them all Margot. Little Margots.
Rita Sunday is the closest the village has to a doctor. She was trained in medicine by the nuns at the orphanage in which she was raised. She is the locals’ midwife, bone-setter, herbalist, and, it seems, their psychologist as well. She is intentionally single and lives in a little cottage on the riverbank.
The injured man is eventually discovered to be Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford, down the river a bit. It is yet a little while more before pieces of his story can be put together. The most mysterious of all the mysterious events that night proves to be that Henry does not know who the little girl is.
When the little girl awakens — oh, yes, this is a fairy tale (maybe), remember — she does not talk and cannot assist in figuring out who she is. She appears to be four years old, the age Amelia Vaughan would be were she alive. Amelia was the beloved daughter of Mr. Vaughan (does he have a first name?) and his wife, Helena. She disappeared from her nursery room one night. A ransom note was received and the ransom paid, but Amelia was never seen again.
Not far away the estate of Robert Armstrong, his wife Bess, and their brood is tidily and happily managed. Except. Robin, the oldest child, once a wild boy and now an unsettled man, is a trouble to his parents. He is not really Robert’s son, as anyone with two eyes can tell. Robert is a black man, unusual for the time and place, and Bess is white. Speaking of eyes, Bess wears an eye patch because she has an unusual eye she prefers to keep hidden. Robin is her son, but much loved and claimed by Robert. Robin had a wife and couldn’t keep her. A pumpkin shell would have been better than where she wound up. It is said that she was so distraught that she killed both herself and their young daughter … who would be about four years old had she lived.
Lily White also lives down by the river. She regularly checks wooden posts stuck in the riverbank to measure how high the water has risen, scratches the chin of a keen-eyed sow in a nearby pen, collects money from a mysterious hidey-hole and puts it in another hidey-hole, cleans the parsonage for the quiet and well-mannered parson, and although she is old and her mother is dead, claims to have a sister who is about four years old.
Does the mysterious girl who was dead and is now alive belong with any of them?
Diane Setterfield crafts a wondrous story. Were she sitting in the inn by the fire, competing for best storyteller, she would be the clear winner.
There are many mysteries to be cleared up by the end of this book, and the stories wend their way like branches of a river to join together at the end in a rush of telling.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Washington Square Press, 352 pages, $16.99 (c2018)