Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

The book depicts the next of a swan as a winding river, with flowers scattered alongside and the title, "Once Upon a River," superimposed.

By Piyali C.

There are many ancient inns on the bank of the river Thames, providing their patrons with more than just ale and cider. Patrons looking for music go to The Red Lion at Kelmscott; for deep contemplation, they go to the Green Dragon at Inglesham; the Stag at Eaton Hastings is the place for gambling. But if they are looking for stories, they go to The Swan at Radcot, the most ancient inn of them all and only a day’s walk from the source of the Thames. On a dark winter’s night, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, a seriously injured man enters The Swan with the body of a four-year-old girl in his arms whom he found floating in the river. Before he can give any explanations, he collapses in the arms of the storytellers at the inn. The innkeeper’s son Jonathan catches the body of the girl before the man falls. The child, presumed dead, is kept in a separate room while everyone gets busy looking after the man, who is still breathing, but just barely. Rita Sunday, the resident nurse of the village, is summoned immediately. She first tends to the injuries of the man, who we learn later is a photographer named Daunt, and then goes to look at the little girl’s dead body. Rita checks her pulse and her breathing and, finding none, she holds the hands of the girl and sits with her awhile, lamenting the death of one so young in such mysterious circumstances. In her hand, however, Rita suddenly feels a flutter of life! The girl, who had no pulse, comes alive.

The thread of the story unspools at this point just like the surge of the Thames roaring outside the inn. Like tributaries that feed the powerful river, each of the characters in this tale veers off to run his or her own course, only to come together to enrich the main body of the story. The narrator takes us on the journey of life with each of her characters and explains how their actions and decisions converge to solve the mystery of the little girl. The river, with its myriad turns and crossings and innumerable tributaries, becomes a powerful character in itself within the plot, always present in the background propelling the story forward with its mighty surge. There are so many intriguing questions that the reader wants answered. Who is the mystery girl who came back from the dead? Is she the kidnapped daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Is she the granddaughter of the black farmer Robert Armstrong, whose wayward son Robin married a woman and then left her alone with their little daughter, Alice? Or is the four-year-old girl the sister of 44-year-old Mrs. Lily White, as she adamantly claims? How is that possible? Who does she belong to and why won’t she speak?

The storyteller of this tale, which is fortified with folklore, magic, science, and myth, is one of the best, sweeping readers in the turbulent current of her fast-paced, hypnotic plot and then delivering them safely back to their own worlds to attend to their own rivers. “And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?” (460) Before leaving us, though, she makes sure each tangle of the plot is smoothly and expertly untangled, each question satisfactorily answered. Once Upon a River is yet another testament to the power of stories and storytelling that has captivated and transformed lives through centuries. This title is also available as an ebook and eaudiobook from Howard County Library System. In my opinion, this novel is best enjoyed in your cozy reading spot on a cold winter’s night, snuggled in your favorite blanket with a cup of hot chocolate by your side.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

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