In a yoga class once (stay with me) the instructor talked of yogis who sat on the banks of the Ganges and allowed their thoughts, worries, stories to drift away on the water. If there was ever a book that described this, Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is it. It’s a book about water, about storytelling, and about how you can make decisions to change the tide of your life or you can go with the flow.
You may know Diane Setterfield from her wonderful debut The Thirteenth Tale, made into a TV programme with Olivia Colman. Once Upon a River is similarly atmospheric, with talk of ghosts and other worldly connections, and again, it is highly readable.
It is set in and around an ancient inn, The Swan at Radcot, on the Thames, well known for its storytelling. One evening – the longest night – a man bursts through the doors. He is injured and confused and in his arms he holds a dead child. He is tended to by the local nurse, midwife and all round good woman Rita, and hours later, the child stirs and take a breath. She has come back to life… but how?
As different members of the Radcot community try to piece together who she is and how she came to be there, we are immersed into their lives, their secrets, their tragedies both hidden and public, and their love – for each other, for their way of life.
This is a slow book. You need to wallow in it, to take stock and just let it wash over you. There is a full cast of characters – Rita and the injured man, Mr Daunt; Margot, the pub landlady and her family; Mr and Mrs Vaughan and their heartbreak; Lily White and her tortured thoughts; and lovely Mr Armstrong. But the character with the most presence is the River Thames itself, washing through lives and taking or giving as it wants. I especially loved the story of Quietly, the riverman who is doomed to remain on the water and save or transport people to the next life as required.
Setterfield’s skill is in recreating an old world with old ways but with emotions that run through the ages. As the characters try to unpick the mystery of the girl, attributing her revival to folklore, to superstition or new scientific ideas, we watch as deeper human reactions – of love, hate, greed, and common decency come to the fore and shape all their lives. Storytelling runs central to the theme of the book – how do we control what stories are told of us, and the things we see? Each telling changes a detail until only the essence of the tale remains. (I feel Margaret Lea from the Thirteenth Tale would love exploring this too.)
This is an excellent book, just the thing to curl up in front of a fire with this winter. My thanks to Alison Barrow for supplying a gorgeous proof copy.
Once Upon a River is available on ebook from today, and is published in the UK in hardback on 17 January.