Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?
They were magical words.
Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour.
As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps.
The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn.
The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.
Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.
None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.
The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”
Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.
Miracle and Mystery
For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.
Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.
Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.
In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears
… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.
He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?
Three people claim she is theirs.
A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.
A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.
A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.
Sorrow Amid the Menace
Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.”
That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.
Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl
He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.
Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.
It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.
The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.
Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time
Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.
For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.
Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.
At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….
Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.
With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.
But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.
He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.
This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.
Once Upon A River: Fast Facts
- Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
- Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
- My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
- Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller