Book Review: Once Upon a River – by Diane Setterfield

It was the longest night of the year, when the strangest thing happened…

I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

I tend to lose track of time between Christmas and New Year, and this year was no different. I found myself in a kind of soporific stupor; my limbs were leaden after weeks of shopping, lifting, housework, wrapping, preparing and cooking. My mind seemed suitably blank – it needed to empty its contents after the craziness of the preceding weeks, aided by a stomach laden with comfort food: sweet and juicy clementines, chocolates, soups, mince-pies, cheese and biscuits and cold turkey.

I can relate to Michael Macintyre on this!

I wandered aimlessly around the house in my PJs lamenting at the mess left behind from the festive celebrations of a large family. I decided to indulge in a novel I had purchased before Christmas alongside other gifts, just the excuse I needed to rest-up after a crazy few weeks and recharge my batteries.

Once Upon a River was the perfect antidote to my post-Christmas malaise. Setterfield’s amazing tale transported me to a different time and place – albeit only just up the Thames in the neighbouring county – but one I knew little of until now.

“As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

I am new to the author – Once Upon a River is actually Setterfield’s third novel, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read! I can’t heap enough praise on it. Once Upon a River is more a work of art than a mere book. I shall definitely read her other two books: The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black.

The writing itself is what impressed me most. It is a pleasure to read for the fine prose as much as for the story, which is beguiling, absorbing and dark. The characterisations are off the chart brilliant!

The people who populate Once Upon a River are totally vivid and life-like.

I felt like a surreptitious local drinking at The Swan at Radcot, among the gravel-diggers, bargemen, cressmen and farmers during the winter solstice, eavesdropping on their stories and watching the dramatic opening event unfold, open mouthed at the heroics of the inn keepers Margot, Joe, their many daughters (the little Margots), young Jonathon and the competent, no-nonsense nurse Rita Sunday.

I fell in love with these characters. I wept with them, understood their bafflement, felt their hardships and injustices, their grief and joy, their hopes and dreams – all these human emotions thrown into sharp relief through the lens of the often cruel and brutal Victorian era.

Their authentic dialogue made me feel like I was part of their conversations. They were completely real to me. They don’t just come to life on the page, they leap off it!

What literary sorcery could manifest them so magically in ink? I had no answer. I could only marvel at Setterfield’s supernatural skill. A modern day Dickens removed from London to rural Oxfordshire!

Picturesque Bampton Village – also a filming location in Downton Abbey

In addition to the Swan’s inhabitants the main characters are made up of two families: the Vaughans and the Armstrongs (farmer Robert Armstrong was my favourite), long suffering Lily White, the vile and beyond redemption Victor Nash, the patient and kind Parson and Henry Daunt (based on real-life Thames photographer, Henry Taunt).

Then there are the three wee lasses around which the mystery of Once Upon a River is expertly crafted: Amelia, Alice and Ann – all thought and hoped to be the enigmatic and fair haired four year old girl saved from drowning by a badly injured Henry Daunt. The story pivots around the rescued girl’s identity, as she is beloved by everyone who comes into contact with her.

But all is not as it seems.

The minor characters were no less colourful: Ben, (the butcher’s son at Bampton) was completely endearing, the knowing and helpful Mrs Constantine, poor naïve and maligned nursemaid, Ruby and the wicked Mrs Eavis.

The river Thames is another important element, as the lives of the characters revolve around its watery banks. In fact the landscape could be considered the main character. It lies at the heart of the story. Who knew there were so many wonderful ways to describe water?

The River Thames at Kelmscott

“For one thing, the river that flows ever onwards is also seeping sideways, irrigating the fields and land to one side and the other. It finds its way into wells and is drawn up to launder petticoats and be boiled for tea. It is sucked into root membranes, travels up cell by cell to the surface, is held in the leaves of watercress”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

After the initial flurry of the rescue of the dead girl and her miraculous return to life on the winter solstice, Setterfield slowly but surely weaves the tributaries of the river’s tale together.

And like a small, unanchored wooden vessel I was carried along the insistent current, twisting this way and that, caught in the ebb and flow of their lives, as powerless as if I was physically caught up in the relentless motion of the river Thames.

Radcot Bridge – the site of The Battle of Radcot Bridge on 19th December 1387

Once Upon a River is both poignant and riveting, heart breaking and heart-warming.

Human nature in all its eternal complexity is laid bare on every page, with the river Thames and Oxfordshire landscape burned indelibly on my mind.

I now also have a better understanding of pigs!

“Pigs were funny creatures. You could almost think they were human the way they looked at you sometimes. Or was the pig remembering something? Yes, she realized, that was it. The pig looked exactly as if she were recollecting some happiness now lost, so that joy remembered was overlaid with present sorrow.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

The scenes where flooding is described echoed exactly what I had seen prior to Christmas, en-route to my mum’s place in Charlton-on-Otmoor. Whole fields lining the M40 motorway glinted like giant mirrors – miles and miles of serene, shallow lakes. In some places the water had crept up to the fringes of civilisation – villages were almost submerged.

The story is told in and around the the villages of Radcot, Kelmscott, Buscot and Bampton. I discovered that Ye Old Swan Inn at Radcot actually exists, as does Brandy Island.

Ye Old Swan Inn at Radcot

“Standing at the helm as Collodion powered along, Daunt had to acknowledge that 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.  One day the river helpfully turns a wheel to grind your barley, the next it drowns your crop. He watched the water slide tantalisingly past the boat, seeming in its flashes of reflected light to contain fragments of the past and of the future.”
~ Diane Setterfield (Once Upon a River)

When I finished Once Upon a River the hairs on my arms and legs stood spontaneously on end. It literally gave me the shivers!

This novel is masterful in every respect. Especially the rich and evocative characters and descriptions, the complex plot, zigzagging like the river it centres upon; you get to one bend and can only see so far along the bank until it turns from sight.  Her employment of foreshadowing was impeccable.

Once Upon a River surprised me – this rarely happens when I read fiction. I can usually see where things are headed. I could see to a certain extent with this book, but not entirely, I was both satisfied and curious, immersed and blissfully on the edge of my seat.

As book lovers will attest to, you get sucked into a reader’s ecosystem – a kind of fictive fug where bodily functions are temporarily suspended as eyes devour word after word, hungry for more, breathing-in the same air for hours on end…

I also gained an appreciation of the sense of community that existed in rural villages a century ago – and most likely still does today. It reminded me of what it means to be part of a close knit community – a rarity in modern urban towns and cities.

Aerial view of Kelmscott Manor

The other surprising and crucial element of this novel’s superlative recipe is how it is steeped in folklore and superstition, highlighting the role of stories in an age before mass entertainment. Stories sustained these communities, as moral guidance, news, time passing and as a creative outlet.

If you found yourself in the water, the Ferryman, Mr Quietly, was either to be welcomed or feared, depending on whether your time was up or not. It had shades of Greek mythology running through it – only the transport between the worlds of the living and the dead was not the Styx but the Thames.

Alongside the myth was the burgeoning presence of the Darwinian era of science and reason – the age of discovery, and Setterfield blends facts and folklore in delightful ways.

Buscot Park – which I think may have been the inspiration for Buscot Lodge, the home of Helena and Anthony Vaughan.

Once Upon a River will stay with me for a long time. It will be reread some-time in the future, out of sheer admiration, as well as for study and pleasure. It is a work of gravitas, beauty, tragedy and love. Its gothic charm, prose and story was reminiscent of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which I greatly enjoyed, but not as much as this.

While I’m at it, I should mention The Second Sleep by Robert Harris – another great read. It has a thought provoking premise and is a superbly written novel.

I finished reading Once Upon a River late on New Year’s eve – perhaps a timely metaphor for completing an eventful and amazing year with a nugget of closure, a happy ending.

I hope 2020 meets your heart’s desires and that the coming decade is full of joy, adventure, health and abundance. There are bound to be challenges and disappointments, every year has them, but they can be overcome with love and persistence.

My Latin motto for 2020 is “Aut viam inveniam aut faciam”, which translates to: “I shall either find a way or make one.”

#FindaWay will be at the forefront of my thoughts when I am vulnerable to accept excuses from myself in the coming months.

Thank you for reading whatever you have read on in words in 2019, I aim to bring you interesting, inspiring and fun content in 2020 and beyond!

“Well, then,” the cressman concluded sagely, “just ’cause a thing’s impossible don’t mean it can’t happen.”
~ Diane Setterfierld, Once Upon a River

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