Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield offers up a great premise and a heaping sense of atmosphere in her newest novel, Once Upon a River (2018), but while the book offers up plenty of satisfying moments, I felt it fell short of its potential and was also somewhat marred by Setterfield’s lack of trust in her readers, though both of those complaints are admittedly more subjective than my typical criticism, so more than usual, one’s mileage may vary here.
As for that wholly engrossing premise, the book opens on the winter solstice in the late 19th century with a man stumbling into The Swan, an inn on the Thames known for its storytelling. In his hands is a young girl, seemingly dead, an assumption confirmed by the local nurse, Rita Sunday. But not much later, the girl miraculously comes back to life, though unable to speak. Who she is, where she came from, and how she ended up nearly drowned (or perhaps wholly drowned) and saved by the photographer Daunt remains a mystery even after Daunt regains consciousness, as he has little memory of events. She becomes therefore a palimpsest, and soon three people are writing their own story on her blank slate. Lily White, the parsonage’s housekeep, claims she’s her sister Ann (despite what would seem to be an implausibly large age difference). Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe (to a varying degree) that she is their long-lost daughter, kidnapped several years ago and now amazingly returned to them. And Robert Armstrong, a well-off and highly educated African-American farmer, thinks she is his granddaughter via his black sheep son Robin. And weaving throughout all this is the river itself, mysterious and meandering, and home to all sorts of stories, including those of Quietly the Ferryman who helps those in need on the river, unless it is their time, in which case he helps them to the “other side.”
The opening scenes are wonderfully compelling and atmospheric, introducing major characters and themes (the power of story, death, loss), the extended metaphor of the river being akin to a story, and offering up a genre that feels like a mish-mash of gothic, magical realism, and Dickens/Austen. Each of the major characters has a strong backstory. Rita, thanks to her job, has a fear of motherhood based off of the horrors of childbirth she’s been witness to. Daunt is always taking pictures of other peoples’ family, while he himself is a lonely traveler. The Vaughans are the walking dead, having never recovered individually or as a couple from the loss of their daughter. And Armstrong is a man of many complications — an African-American in a white world, an educated man among the less so, part of a mixed marriage, a large man of gentle thought and action, a man who converses with his pig more than his estranged son. Lily is fierce in her belief the girl is Anne, but has horrid nightmares of her sister’s ghost accusing her of something. Meanwhile, Joseph, the long-time owner of The Swan, is dying, with his wife and children doing most of the work in the inn.
As Setterfield talks about bringing in “tributaries” — these other stories — I thought we were heading into a series of linked stories, but she keeps the structure more novelistic, simply following the different characters’ storylines. And this is when I began to feel Once Upon a River was moving in too tame a fashion for me. The structure was familiar, and soon the plotting as well, as we get the usual hallmarks of 19th century fiction — lost relatives, overheard conversations, mysterious letters. And then the atmospheric became too concrete as we were privy to all sorts of interior monologues, dialogues, narrative descriptions or overt metaphors that starkly laid out what I would have preferred was left a bit more to my own discernment. Here, for instance, is a scene with Vaughan riding home after a trying day:
His mount had its muzzle to the ground, exploring for something sweet among the winter bracken. “There’s nothing there for you. Nothing for me either.” He was overwhelmed with a great weariness…
I got the connection between the horse’s futile seeking and his own. Even the “sweet” was a bit much for me, but I certainly didn’t need the spoken words. I’ll grant that this style is right out of the 19th century playbook (“The child … was the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter endowed with life!”) and, as well, some might not find it such an annoyance, but it marred the reading experience for me and grew more noticeable (and thus more annoying) as the novel progressed. The same for how faithfully it hewed to the plots and twists of the form. Finally, it all seemed to wrap up too neatly for me, even its supernatural aspect.
Setterfield had me under the river’s spell early on, and there were good moments throughout Once Upon a River, such as a wonderfully playful scenes with the inn regulars debating a storyteller’s word choice and the running contrast between those who are full of empathy and those who are utterly callous to the fate of others, but by the midpoint, while the book kept me engaged enough to keep going to the end, it lost its sense of wonder and discomfort and settled into a semi-satisfying but too familiar tale. By the time the river — the metafictional stand-in for story — had flooded its banks, I was wishing Setterfield had let her own story escape its constraints and become just as dangerous and unruly.
A lost girl, about four years old, turns up at the ancient Swan inn and tavern by the Thames River in 1887, on the night of the winter solstice. An injured man staggers into the inn, holding the apparently drowned girl in his arms, and promptly collapses. When the local midwife and nurse, Rita, arrives, she privately confirms that the girl is not breathing and has no pulse, though she mysteriously has no sign of drowning or other injury. But a few minutes later the girl suddenly lives and breathes again, stunning Rita and the others at the inn.
The girl is wordless, and it’s soon discovered that she doesn’t belong to Daunt, the man who carried her into the inn. Who, then, does she belong to? Several people raise a claim: Robin Armstrong, the wastrel oldest son of a black gentleman farmer, Robert, claims her as his lost daughter Alice. Lily White, an abused woman whose younger sister may have died many years ago, insists (against all evidence) that the girl is her little sister Ann. Helena and Anthony Vaughan, a couple whose two-year old daughter was kidnapped two years ago, claim the girl as their daughter Amelia, although it soon becomes clear that Anthony has grave doubts, though those are undermined by Helena’s passionate conviction and her joy after two years of inconsolable grief.
As Bill mentions, these and others are unique, interesting characters with strong backstories that flow like tributaries into the main river of the tale. The Swan inn is a place that specializes in storytelling, and the river that runs past the inn and flows in an out of the story throughout the novel, carries its own stories ― particularly Quietly the mythic ferryman, a gaunt figure who appears to those who are in trouble on the water, helping them either to life and safety or to “another shore.” A diverse cast of unusual characters, some tragedy, a mystery or three, a challenging romance, and a little magical realism spice up the plot of Once Upon a River.
Water flows throughout the tale, a potent symbol that Diane Setterfield, for the most part, uses effectively (I did find the closing paragraph too pat). Everyone’s life has been touched by the river to one degree or another. Daunt is a photographer who’s endlessly fascinated by the river. Rita was born to a despairing mother who threw herself into the river, dying just after giving birth to Rita. Helena has always loved boating on the river, until her daughter’s kidnapping and disappearance two years ago.
It had seemed then that her daughter’s absence had flooded Helena, flooded them both, and that with their words they were trying to bail themselves out. But the words were eggcups, and what they were describing was an ocean of absence, too vast to be contained in such modest vessels. She bailed and she bailed, but no matter how often she repeated the effort, she could not get to the end of it.
Setterfield’s language is lovely and her storytelling is beautiful, with depths to it that most fantasy authors don’t aspire to. I also admire her ability to develop multi-layered characters and build a world that I felt wholly immersed in.
Bill’s primary complaint is that Once Upon a River becomes too concrete and obvious in its symbolism, structure and plot. That wasn’t an aspect that bothered me; I’m generally just happy to see symbolism make an appearance at all (I strongly suspect that my literary tastes aren’t as exacting as Bill’s). What did vex me was that the pacing of the novel was so languid until it finally picked up in the final third. But then it was fascinating to see all the various tributaries (plot threads) of the story come together, although Setterfield makes a little too much use of coincidence in tying the threads together and wrapping up her story. Though perhaps one might call those coincidences fate, or Providence, or even Quietly the ferryman watching over the river and the people whose lives are touched by it.
Like the river that is the fluid, adaptable symbol for this Victorian-era story, Once Upon a River meanders at first, but gains force as it flows toward a compelling conclusion. It’s a profound and meaningful voyage that I enjoyed and would recommend to readers who enjoy thoughtful historic tales with a dash of fantasy.
I had some similar problems with The Thirteenth Tale when I read it years and years ago.
Yep. I had hopes this would improve that experience but wasn’t the case.
I definitely liked this better than Bill did, but that doesn’t surprise me. :) I also really enjoyed her style of writing in The Thirteenth Tale, though.