I’ve been reading a lot of clever and ‘concentrate-y’ books (read: lit fic?) recently and was really missing the power of a novel of good length and brilliant story. In came Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield at just the right time.
Set in a rural village community upon the banks of the river Thames near Oxford, Once Upon a River has a bit of everything in it: rivers and many a water-related metaphor, mysterious disappearing and reappearing children, folklore and how it can impact people’s beliefs and lives and, of course, what we all need at this time of the year: some good old-fashioned Victorian Gothic.
With wonderfully crafted characters and stories woven together and separately, Setterfield creates a cast of people who are linked in sometimes surprising ways. At the heart of the story is the drowned girl who is magically revived and the mystery of who she is and to which family she belongs. Throughout the book I had my own theories, but was still pleasantly surprised and pleased with the ending that offers you two versions – one in line with the mythology of the river, and one more feasible, but less exciting.
To me, Once Upon a River felt very Thomas Hardy-esque: the idea of a rural community changing but staying the same through the seasons. Setterfield has a comfortable way of writing that makes you feel like you’re part of the story, at the same time as friends with the storyteller. There’s a nod to this kind of narrative structure at the end when Setterfield asks the reader directly: “surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?” As a book that deals with the idea of stories and story tellers, this is certainly a fitting final line.
At over five hundred pages, the book is something of a slow burn whose pace and level of detail might not appeal to all. I personally felt that Setterfield built enough on the cast of characters and kept just the right level of suspense and intrigue to keep me interested until the end. As I am writing (and rewriting) fairy tales in my own work, it was particularly interesting to see how Setterfield draws upon and refers to the genre throughout the book. I am glad to have read something this substantial and aware of itself, and feel inspired to include some of these elements in my own work.
If you’re looking for a bit of magic and mystery on a winter’s eve, I can’t recommend this enough!