Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Black Swan (2019), ISBN-10: 1784163635

Although Once Upon a River is set in Victorian England, it often seems to belong to an older, darker, more magical time. The tale begins on a dark midwinter’s night on the upper reaches of the River Thames, in an ancient inn called The Swan. At this time, we’re told, an inn would have its own specialism: there were musical inns and storytelling inns, brawling inns, and inns for quiet contemplation. The Swan is a storytelling inn. At the winter solstice, the rain falls and the river swells and as master-storyteller, Joe Bliss, begins a tale the inn door bursts open and injured stranger steps inside. He is carrying the drowned corpse of a child. Hours later, the dead girl takes a breath and returns to life. Miracle, or magic, she must belong to someone, and this begins the weaving of three apparently disparate stories, each with the Thames at its heart.

I read the book mid-COVID lockdown when I ached for an escapist tale. Setterfield’s creation fit the bill perfectly. She walks a fine line between myth and scientific rationalism, which makes the book all the more interesting, and while there are a couple of slightly implausible anachronisms in terms of characters and their acceptance in a community largely suspicious of difference, Setterfield makes up for them with lush descriptive prose, humour, and a truly intriguing story. The seasons, and at the at the confluence of the three tributaries, when the river is in full spate, the three stories merge in a deeply satisfying denouement.

Once Upon a River is available on Amazon

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