Diane Setterfield follows up The Thirteenth Tale with Once Upon a River, a story of mysticism and religion colliding during the time when Darwinian theory was first taking hold.
On the bank of the Thames at Redcot, there once sat a magical inn called the Swan at Radcot, which becomes known for being the place to go to tell and listen to spellbinding stories over a pint. Run by Margot Ockwell – the latest in a long line of Ockwells who’ve maintained the property – it exists throughout the eons, resting on this reputation.
One day Joe Bliss walks into the Swan, starts spinning tales, and increases their business threefold – and naturally, Margot marries him. They produce twelve robust daughters and a single son, Jonathan, whose unusual features and strange manners are impish, timeless, and seem determined to leave him forever with his aging parents at the inn, which suits him just fine. By the time Joe and Margot are sixty, the Swan’s business is booming, cared for primarily by their daughters and their brood. But then Joe falls ill with a lung sickness, and Margot takes to determinedly nursing him.
When the night of the solstice arrives, Jonathan sighs that he wishes he could tell a story – for he’s the only unsuccessful storyteller among the Bliss family. Then a man with a horribly beaten face carrying an oversized puppet with a waxen face stumbles into the inn, roars, and collapses. But he’s alive, and the puppet is in actuality a little girl, drowned and dressed up to look like a doll. Rita Sunday, ex-novice nun, midwife and town nurse, is called in to care for the man and helps pull together clues as to who he is When she examines the girl, the seemingly dead child springs to life, mute but conscious, and that is just the first of the odd events that occur at the Swan on the night of that solstice and in the days afterwards. Surrounded by a chorus of rivermen (one of whom, Dauntless, soon becomes dear to Rita), cressmen and gravediggers, Jonathan, Joe, Rita and Margot must help solve the mystery of the beaten man, find out the identity of the puppet girl, and stand in question of the mysterious place where faith, science and magic collide. As we follow their stories backwards, up the river and away from the Swan to both the mouth of the tributary and the origin of the story of the little girl and the man who carried her away, the pathway twists but never wanes. All of the people who live on this side of the Thames only know one thing – there is a different life on the opposing bank, one they can never reach, and something’s going to happen.
There is something definitely Chaucerian about Once Upon a River. A wide-ranging, disparate cast of characters, a complex yarn and mystery to solve all harken back to his tales of medieval England, and Setterfield adds a sprinkling of magical realism that leaves the reader at the crossroads between religion and mysticism. It’s very gripping and quite easy to be enthralled by, even if you feel a little frustrated when you have to leave behind one set of characters to meet the next. But since the book is about community, about the way a story can spread through it, you end up coming back to the Swan – eventually.
All of the characters are interesting, but Rita and Jonathan were the easiest to bond with and held a vitality and life within them. Rita is deliberately muted by fear and selflessness; having witnessed so many women dying in childbirth she has determined never to marry or fall in love; Jonathan determinedly lives his life and tries to keep cheerful in the face of difficult circumstances.
The narrative clash between religion, magical realism and science is a fascinating one – as is the clash between the human beings on the banks and the mystical little girl who connects them all together.
There’s a lot of beauty to this story, mysterious, richly rewarding and captivating as it is. To reveal too much about it would be a sin, so let’s just say that following the river where it takes you – through Rita’s growth into fearlessness, through Dauntless’ development into a forthright person, through the process of Margot’s letting go of Joe and their daughters’ abundant lives, through Jonathan’s cheeky optimism and into the true history of the man and the mysterious little puppet girl and those who loved her before – is a reward rich and true.
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