Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (Transworld, Penguin Random House)
On a cold winter night by the Thames an injured man carries a drowned child into an Inn. The Inn, The Swan, is renowned for its storytelling landlord and its warm welcome. The Ockwell family have run it for years, there are regulars who have enjoyed their hospitality and old Joe’s stories for decades. The night the drowned child makes her appearance will affect them all in some way, along with many more people we don’t meet until later in the tale. What follows the rescue of the child is a fantastic tale of loss and love, and of the power belief has to play in all our lives – however level-headed we may think we are.
There is an element of the detective story to this book – it does after all begin with an enormous mystery – who is the child who appears to be drowned, and who is the man – also half dead – who fished her from the river? Another novel could have taken this tale alone and been a perfectly good read, but not this one. In ‘Once Upon a River’ one mystery is not enough; instead we are presented with many, all twined about each other like weeds by the river bank.
This is a novel of many stories then, and a huge cast of characters to go with them. Like the river itself the stories eddy like water, they never settle, we think we have grasped the narrative, second guessed the author…and then it’s gone, in a completely different direction. Despite my usual habit of reading everything pretty quickly, this novel wouldn’t let me. Somehow Diane Setterfield has harnessed the spirit of the river, the pace of flowing water dictating the rate at which I read it. The winter chapters – when the drowned child is first discovered – contain urgency, like the rushing water of winter. By rainy mid-summer the pace is languid and dreamy, yet gripping as we come closer to the end of the tale.
Although filled with older folk traditions; folktale, myths and magic – a story about the dragons of Cricklade is a fascinating aside – we’re also shown the new ways of understanding (Once Upon a River is set in the latter half of the 19th Century, Darwin had published On The Origin of Species, medical science was making great advances). Rita Sunday – a nurse trained by nuns at the foundling hospital she was brought up in – is methodical. Rita tries to find rational explanation for the events unfolding around her by experimentation and reading. She, like Mr Armstrong – a local well to do farmer – is a character who sits somehow simultaneously within and outside the story. Despite Mr Armstrong’s loving family and position he is, we find out, a black man in white Victorian society, and must carry himself carefully in order to gain trust and find his way past hostility. Rita is an independent, single woman – a position she is fiercely protective of. Though they will both be changed by the end, these two characters more than any – I felt – push the story along; they are its backbone, or maybe its river bed.
It is a book about many kinds of stories. Those that are told out of love, or the need for reassurance, those told allowing people to hide from pain – there is pain in this book; the Vaughans have lost a daughter, and husband and wife are estranged. The Ockwells, who own the Inn, know Joe will not live for much longer. There are stories told from a place of hate and deceit, designed to hold a person in thrall – Lily White grieves for a lost sister and lives in abject fear of something monstrous. We also encounter other myths – like that of Quietly the Ferryman, who will rescue you from the river, or not, depending on if it’s your time to go.
I can’t really do this novel justice here. It is a dream of a book in which older ways of understanding weave together with the later 19th Century worlds of science and rationality. Like our dreams as we wake and try to grasp them, you will find yourself questioning what is real to its cast of characters, and what is myth or magic. It is a novel about love and loss, and about moving on – as the river always does.
Once Upon A River is published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers
Doubleday, and is available 17th January 2019. Thanks to them for providing a review copy via NetGalley.