Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield draws misty trails across her stories in ways that both obscure and illuminate, challenging her readers to uncover the truth she writes. Her settings are the otherworldly that sit opaquely on top of a solid reality and her characters draw a reader in through fascination and curiousity. She is a master of language. I first encountered her work through The Thirteenth Tale and then in Bellman and Black, the former of which I liked more than the latter, and I bought Once Upon a River several years ago in order to once again immerse myself in her work. And then as is common with books I buy, it languished, unread, on my shelf for literal years, until now, when I picked up this unsettling, dreamy, and immersive fairy tale of a story about the power of storytelling and want and loss.

In 1887, on the evening of the winter Solstice, at The Swan, a rural inn on the banks of the River Thames, as a public room full of people drank and listened to the publican's storytelling, a man three quarters frozen through, and dripping river water, burst into the room carrying the body of a four year old girl and promptly collapsed. The child had drowned and was beyond help but the man could still be saved. Rita, a local nurse, was called to assist with the unconscious man. She saw the body of the child and confirmed to herself by all measures that the small girl was dead, only to then witness the girl come back to life with a gasp. The man who saved her regains consciousness but has no idea who the child is, leading to confusion and speculation. Was she the missing child of the Vaughns, wealthy local landowners whose baby was kidnapped several years before? Was she missing daughter of a thief from a local farming family who disapeared when her mother died by suicide and was last seen being led to the river before her mother's death? Was she the young sister of the parson's cleaning lady? Each of these three possibilities diverge and then come together just as the River Thames and its tributaries meander toward the sea. Each of these missing girl stories is like a tributary of the great river--sometimes taking over and sometimes meandering slowly like a trickle but always weaving inexorably back to the main story. There is a fourth, and supernatural, possibiliy as well. Could this mute child be the daughter of Quietly the boatman who is said to haunt this stretch of the river? Threaded through these larger tales are smaller stories that also flow into the greater story, that of Daunt, the photographer who saved the girl and who finds himself falling in love with his nurse; that of the local farmer, the son of royalty and a Black maid, who has created his own wonderful, much loved family; and that of the solitary, haunted woman who cleans for the parson, keeping quiet about the history of abuse she has suffered and continues to suffer.

The line between the realistic and the supernatural is a thin one and this story straddles it well with its slowly rising tension, its lush descriptions, the ongoing question of the child's identity, and the hypnotic feel of the prose itself. In the person of the reanimated little girl and the various characters' great desire for her to be their missing child, all of the characters are all faced with the secrets and heavy guilt each carries. Setterfield has taken a complex plot, stirred in elements of magical realism, Victorian sensibilities, the hold of superstition, and questions of belonging and identity in this paean to the power and importance of storytelling. The ending of this mesmerizing tale starts to come apart a bit, as if the answer to the question of the child's identity must be hurried along so that all of the other plot threads could be neatly tied up too. Despite this oddly curtailed conclusion after so many pages of slowly heightening the suspense, the story as a whole was an engrossing one that keeps a reader turning the pages hoping for the truth, or at least a satisfying resolution to each of the major and minor story lines.

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