Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

once upon a river

The river was too vast a thing to be contained in any book. Majestic, powerful, unknowable, it lends itself tolerantly to the doings of men until it doesn’t, and then anything can happen.

Once Upon A River begins on a Winter’s night at The Swan, an ancient inn on the bank of the River Thames renowned for its storytellers. While its regulars are engrossed in telling their stories, an unfamiliar man stumbles in carrying the corpse of a drowned child – who later that night, breathes again.

Word soon gets out across and along the river, with friends and neighbours roused by the mysterious events of that night and desperate to discover who the girl belongs to.  As the stories unfold, it’s possible that the child could belong to two (maybe even three) different families. But when so many parts of the story are missing, who can possibly know what version of the tale is closest to the truth? 

I really liked the literary technique of this novel; the story itself is woven around observations of storytelling, with references to how a story can differ or develop depending on the perspective of who tells it. For example:

“The briefness of the formulations elided the impossibilities better than any other, and for the moment this was her version. It was laconic, but it was true.”

“Every detail of the day’s events was gone over, the facts were weighed and combined, quantities of surmising, eavesdropping and supposition were stirred in for flavour, and a good sprinkling of rumour added like yeast to make it rise.”

“’Aye, so it might have happened, but you can’t tell it thus.’”

I can only think of one other book I’ve read that does a similar thing, and that’s Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare. If you haven’t read this, basically the entire play is contrived around the characters making a big deal out of nothing – it’s quite fun 🙂

Aside from the theme of storytelling, the narrative of this book is beyond beautiful. I’ve seen a few reviews comment on how little action there is, but personally I think this is offset by the lyrical prose. Here’s a couple of examples:

“…for a fleeting, fragile moment, it seemed that one thing at least was securely tethered in this story that slipped through your fingers like water.”

“…a throng of phantoms hovered mistily in the blank dampness.”

Which brings me onto another theme present throughout: the river. The river is central to the story in that it’s a reference point for all of the villages, in addition to a means of transport. All the characters have grown up alongside the river, and live and breathe it in one way or another. The river creates a certain atmosphere which I believe is meant to be a metaphor for life: tranquil, familiar and mesmerising but equally unpredictable and destructive.

In parallel to the events that unfold is the idea that, like water, we can’t always control what happens to us. It’s human nature to try and make logical sense of things, which often leads us to imagine certain ideas to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Interestingly this novel questions the difference between imagination and reality – who is to say these are two separate things?

It was an obvious way to soothe the strain of it, if you were one of those that can’t stand a glaring gap in a tale, an implausibility, reality gone wrong.

With the rain came the realisation they had been staring at not a piece of theatre but at other people’s misfortunes.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I haven’t read anything similar before, so it was a refreshing writing style along the lines of what I already know I enjoy. The story keeps you intrigued from start to finish, but eventually all loose ends are tied up – exactly what you’d expect from a traditional fairytale.  

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