As readers, we know all novels are fiction, but sometimes we forget. We get swept up and lose track, believing on some level that it’s true. In Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, you won’t forget that you’re reading a story—its language and framework are almost constantly calling attention to the story’s story-ness—but you probably won’t mind, either. It’s a corker of a story, full of moody elegance, as a good Gothic should be.
The Swan at Radcot, where the story starts, is introduced as the inn “where you went for storytelling,” and there are constant callbacks throughout the novel to the inn’s storytellers and the stories they tell. In the early pages of the book, these stories are their own versions of what happens one cold, dark night when a mud- and blood-soaked man staggers into the Swan carrying the body of a little girl.
The girl turns out to be alive—though the question of whether she was actually dead for a time remains open most of the novel—and questions about her true identity are the engine that propels the rest of the book’s action, as well its characters’ attendant stories. Is she the kidnapped daughter of a well-off local couple taken two years ago, who rejoice at her potential return? Or is she the not-exactly-dear daughter of a well-liked local farmer’s oldest son, whose reaction to the girl is far more ambiguous? And what does the parson’s housekeeper, who calls the girl by the name of her long-dead sister, have to do with it all?
The characters Setterfield devises for the novel are every bit as colorful and mysterious as you would hope them to be. There’s Rita Sunday, the local nurse and midwife who grew up an orphan in a nunnery, and kindred spirit Henry Daunt, the photographer who brought the drowned girl into the Swan and now finds himself inextricably woven into the story of who she might be. There’s diligent farmer Robert Armstrong, whose dark skin sets him apart from his neighbors, and the aforementioned housekeeper Lily White, who sets herself apart with secretive, isolating behavior that grows more erratic after the girl’s arrival. There are shadowy figures galore: stinking tramps and disguised fortune-tellers, wastrel sons and unpredictable madams, goodhearted parsons and psychics who may or may not be real psychics. You will almost certainly lose track of who is named what and what their role in the story might be. There are a lot of them. And they have a lot of secrets.
No one, however, has more secrets than the little girl around whom the story revolves. After her initial re-awakening, she seems healthy but does not speak; she does not seem to recognize any of the people who vie for her attention but neither does she protest when she is sent home with those who are most likely—but not definitely—her parents.
Whether you raptly follow this story all the way to its conclusion or drift away partway through will probably depend on two things: how urgently do you want to know who that little girl really is? And does the story-ness of it all increase your enjoyment of the book or interfere with it?
Like the best of her own storytelling characters, Setterfield knows how to create and nurture a mood. Dark foreboding and alluring mystery suffuse the novel. Given the immense cast of characters and the care with which she explores their minds and their secrets, the novel can feel slow at times, but it doesn’t lack for plot, and in the end, Setterfield doesn’t drop a stitch. It’s hard to tell as you’re going along what’s a digression and what’s a clue, but in the end, it all comes together.
And isn’t that what matters most about a story? To enjoy it as it goes along and to feel satisfied at the end? It is no spoiler to say that one of the last lines of the book is “And now, dear reader, the story is over.” A story rises and falls not just on its content but its teller. If you like your stories intricately woven, dark but not grim, and shared with warmth and sparkle, you won’t regret putting yourself in this storyteller’s hands.
Once Upon a River
By Diane Setterfield
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Published December 4, 2018
Diane Setterfield is the author of three novels. Her debut novel, Thirteenth Tale (2006), was adapted for television in 2013 for BBC2. Diane lives in Oxford by the Thame