Diane Setterfield wrote The Thirteenth Tale, which I loved and Bellman and Black, which is very good but which I didn’t like as much as other people did. Once Upon a River is better than either, I think. The title is perfect for the book because it all begins with story-telling. The setting is a stretch of the river Thames, in particular the area around the Swan inn at Rushton. The inn is famous for its stories, people gathering there to tell their own tales and listen to those of others. One dark night a tale begins which will be told forever: an injured stranger staggers into the inn, carrying what appears to be a puppet but is actually a drowned child. Yet the child lives! She seems to come back to life; is this a miracle? A child had disappeared from a wealthy family home, but is she the same girl? Much of the book is about this mystery but there’s so much more to it.
The river is the story; people live beside it, work on it, drown in it. The story is like a river, now flowing smoothly in straight narrative, now shifting to tributaries to describe the characters and their back stories, now overflowing to flood the land and threaten chaos. We meet Rita, the nurse who is ‘as good as a doctor’; Daunt the photographer from Oxford; Armstrong, that rare person, a prosperous black farmer, the kindest man in the world but grieved by a bad-lot stepson; poor Lily suffering from her evil step-brother, who has a large part in the plot. Always we come back to the inn, run by Margot with her husband and children. It’s where the story begins and ends. But the story doesn’t quite end. Although there is one conclusion there are still mysteries and events which hint at the supernatural. In this watery world, anything seems possible. It’s beautifully written and in parts, as in the description of the happy life of the Armstrongs on their farm, almost Dickensian. I enjoyed reading it so much that although I wanted to find out what happened, I didn’t want to finish it.
I read this thanks to NetGalley and it’s out on 17th January.