Once Upon A River: meandering fancies

Book cover: Once Upon a River - Diane Setterfield - the title flowing down a river through stylised fields of flowersA man with a nightmare face staggers into a riverside tavern carrying a dead girl who comes back to life. It’s the stuff legends are made of. It’s a gift to a community of storytellers – but truth can be stranger than fiction…

Diane Setterfield has a flair for telling stories about storytellers, the most unreliable of narrators. The Thirteenth Tale was a Gothic labyrinth of twins, incest, murder and madness. Once Upon A River is a much gentler outing, a cosy Victorian tale of Thameside life enlivened by an unexpected outbreak of gossipworthy events. But how much of the story should we take at face value?

Every riverside tavern needs a claim to fame, and the Swan at Radcot has always been the best one for hearing a good tale well told. Some tell of Quietly, the ghostly boatman who sees people safely across the river (or carries them to that other, quieter shore); others breathe fresh life into the ancient Battle of Radcot Bridge; none expected a story to stagger into their bar carrying a dead body. And while the storytellers regularly bring the dead back to life in their tales, they certainly didn’t expect a resurrection shortly after.

It could have been enough to stoke new stories for months, but it doesn’t end there. News travels fast in small communities: the very next day, Robert Armstrong hears the tale in Bampton, where he’s seeking his daughter-in-law and the granddaughter he has never seen. Anthony and Helena Vaughan have the news from their gardener, who tells them the child is the age their daughter would be if she hadn’t been stolen from her bed one night two years ago. Soon the Swan has two competing claims to the one mostly-drowned girl, and nobody is entirely sure who has the right of it.

The stage is set for a rich stew of personal histories and tales within tales. Setterfield adopts the style of oral narration (a personal favourite, which reminded me that it’s been ages since I went to the Crick Crack Club), the personable tone perfect for the teasing if affectionate manner in which she explores her characters. And for me the characters are the novel’s strength: the main plot is often telegraphed, developments visible from one meander to the next (although there are a few surprises hidden in the oxbows); the smaller stories of past and present are where the tale comes alive.

With as many tributaries as the river itself, Once Upon A River takes its time as it slowly flows to its unexpected conclusion. I was delighted by young, adventure-seeking Helena Vaughan, saddened by her transformation into a withdrawn, grieving mother, and concerned by what toll a second loss might take. I was charmed by generous Robert Armstrong, with his strong sense of fairness and his wilful blindness to his stepson’s nature (and yes, I was doubly charmed by his affection for his pigs). I was hopeful for the promise of affection and companionship for industrious, selfless Rita Sunday (and oh gosh SO ANGRY at certain developments, honestly MEN).

Setterfield’s achievement is in telling so many stories in parallel and in making almost all of them compelling. In the end, however, that success came at a cost: I was least invested in the central plot – the identity of the girl who didn’t quite drown on the solstice night. The attempt to mysticise her – not just by the fictional storytellers, but by the narrative’s insistence that everyone wants to keep her – left me uneasy.

Given such a strong push by my narrator, I inevitably end up wondering about their reliability. Is this an omniscient voice sharing a little-known history of the Oxfordshire countryside or is it a seasoned storyteller by the Swan’s fireside, embroidering well-known local events to breathe fresh magic into them for an audience who has heard many versions before?

The narrator never introduces themself, so I’ll never know, but as their tale swung from supernatural mystery to family drama to crime thriller and back again, I couldn’t help but wish they didn’t feel the need to make everything relevant along the way. Consequently, I found myself far more interested in whether haunted Lily White was in possession of Maud the pig than whether Amelia Vaughan was actually Alice Armstrong. 

That’s not to say this isn’t a delightful read: that would be to undersell Maud the pig (seriously. Best pig). Besides, I have to take my hat off to Diane Setterfield for making her narrative metaphor and meanders go the extra mile – and for evoking plenty of feelings along the way.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Once Upon A River is available now in paperback.