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Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

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. 

Fireside Stories

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.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

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.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

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

Six Degrees from artificial intelligence to destiny fulfilled

Murmur

This month’s  Six Degrees of Separation  (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.

Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2,  shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.

A_Space_Odyssey

Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.

Dark Star Safari

The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth.  What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys  of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.

Bend in the River

Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.

Once Upon a River

It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.

Diane Setterfield’s  Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?

This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

midnights children

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.

The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.

northern lights

In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights,  Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth  by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.

Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.

 

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 16

Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019

What are you currently reading?

The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola

I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume  series. April 1 sees the start of  an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money.  Zola describes this period as

… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.

It’s got off to a terrific start with some lengthy descriptive passages showing the excesses of the Second Empire (middle of the nineteenth century).

What did you recently finish reading? 

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story.  Review to follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dignity

I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.

Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming  and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

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