Doublesday | 2019 (17 January) | 420p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book
It is the longest night of the year and the men of Radcot, Oxfordshire, gather in The Swan, an ancient inn on the banks of the Thames, keeping to its winter room for warmth. There are no women among the regulars although each knows that the landlady, Margot, rules queen of this inn. The appeal of The Swan is that it is a place for telling stories. The landlord, Joe, a man who ails from damp in his lungs, is a master of storytelling and people gather to hear him and to tell their own. On this midwinter’s night they will each gain a new story, better than any. An injured stranger bursts through the door and collapses. In his arms is the body of a young girl, four-years-old at most. Rita Sunday, the local healer, is fetched but it is clear to everyone that the child is dead. But then, hours later, she wakes up.
The community of Radcot knows all about lost children. The Vaughans lost their daughter two years before, stolen by thieves. Little Amelia’s mother, Helena, a young woman who feels more at home on the river than she does on land, is bereft and her husband despairs. Might this child be Amelia? Robert Armstrong has cause to think that she might instead be the granddaughter he’s never met, a little girl feared drowned. And then there’s Lily White, a woman who is lost herself, who lives in little more than a hovel, who believes that the child can be none other than her sister, who she last saw so long ago. All of these people are as linked by their sorrow as they are by the river as it flows through their lives during the months between midwinter and midsummer and the winter once more. A time that will change them all.
Once Upon a River is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition.
Diane Setterfield paints such exquisite portraits of the men and women who live in Radcot and its environs. We occasionally might meet dangerous predators but the majority of the people we come across are drawn with such tenderness and care. It’s impossible not to become involved in their stories. For me, the standout character, among many who stand out, is Robert Armstrong, a gentle giant if ever there was one, whose empathy for his fellow human beings, especially children, as well as for the creatures that he farms or comes across during his day is bewitching. He has something in his pocket for them all but he also gives them all his time and attention. His adoration for his pigs is something to behold. They are his friends. One, alas, like the little girl carried out of the river, is lost. I also loved the theme of photography that weaves through the novel – this is the dawn of a new age, the age of Darwin and science, which is now trickling down to those who live superstitious and relatively impoverished lives along the Thames.
We get to know these people intimately as they live their lives, suffer their griefs, enjoy their rare joys, and sometimes die, meeting the ferryman that they all believe haunts these waters. Diane Setterfield understands their motivations entirely and each of the stories we encounter here is perfectly formed. There is, though, such a sadness to parts of the novel which did at times make for painful reading but I was so hypnotised by it I could not put it down, staying up late into the night to read it. There is lightness to counteract the darkness. There is hope and there is also gentle humour as well as great kindness. A fairy tale of sorts, there are hints of something otherworldly just out of reach.
Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish. It is also set in my part of the world and it made me feel closer to it, made me want to explore more of it. The beautiful cover hints at wonders within and they are there to discover and enjoy. I have no doubt that this marvellous book will be among my favourites of the year.