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Once Upon a River: Intrigue, mystique and a healthy seam of Gothic


Once Upon a River

Diane Setterfield

Doubleday, trade paperback, 420 pages, €16.99


Diane Setterfeld: a love letter to the oral craft of yarn-spinning

Diane Setterfeld: a love letter to the oral craft of yarn-spinning

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River


Diane Setterfeld: a love letter to the oral craft of yarn-spinning

It will be interesting to see if we can get through this review of Diane Setterfield's third novel without comparing the plot, texture or language to the mannerisms of the river it so proudly holds aloft. At least two of the blurbs accompanying this much-anticipated return from the author of The Thirteenth Tale resort to glib idiomatic praise that likens this meaty novel's twists, turns and narrative course to "the river at its heart".

Admittedly, Setterfield is a storyteller who can plant pungent things in your head without you being fully aware, and in the case of this magic-realist saga set along the upper reaches of the Thames in the late 19th century, the great river and the secrets it holds are never far from the fates of the characters. It is a clearly defined constant that runs parallel to the mystery that plays out in these pages, a giver and a taker, a source of demarcation in an uncertain life but, at the same token, something that might also swallow you whole if you're not careful.

We are concerned with a winter-solstice night that saw the Thames spit something out, for a change.

The Swan, an inn as old as the hills, is littered with storytellers hunched over their ale, all seeking to outdo one another in what was presumably the bar-stool sport of the era. This night, however, something happens that sets chins wagging like never before.

A man bursts through the door. He is soaking wet and badly injured, and carrying what looks like a wet puppet. On closer inspection by the innkeeper's only son, Jonathan, the puppet turns out to be a drowned girl. And what's more, a drowned girl who subsequently comes back to life all of a sudden.

The story ranges up stream and downstream like wildfire, and sees folk flocking to The Swan to hear firsthand the events of that night, an inversion of the natural order at a time when scientific theory was marching into battle with superstition and the divine.

As with so many stories the world over, there is a young girl at the axis of this intrigue - young, innocent, mute and squarely the centre of rife speculation and rumour.

Three inhabitants of the region feel they have a rightful claim to her. Lily White, a troubled domestic, is sure the little girl is somehow her long-dead sister. Meanwhile, a prominent local farmer, Robert Armstrong, believes that she might be the illegitimate grandchild of his estranged ne'er-do-well son.

The girl ends up in the custody of the Vaughan's, a wealthy couple whose daughter was kidnapped. Mrs Vaughan is pulled from a deep depression by the apparent return of the child, but her husband is not fully able to celebrate because something is amiss.

The world that Setterfield weaves together gushes with mystique, intrigue and a healthy seam of the Gothic. In just a few chapters, its bounty of imagination serves up characters and possibilities that move before your eyes. You realise that Once Upon a River works its magic not in the wrapping-up of its shady story but in the telling of it.

The continuous rummaging to produce an eerie atmosphere, a quirky anecdote or a poignant backstory can spill over on occasion, as if one novel is doing the work of five. In reality, this is Setterfield penning a 400-page love letter to both the oral craft of yarn-spinning ("Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at The Swan? You will have to judge for yourself," our wonderful narrator teases early on) and the past-bedtime relish that grips us as young readers.

We meet moon-faced children with tongues too big for their constantly smiling mouths. We encounter talk of a ghostly ferryman known only as Quietly who guides boatmen to safety on the shore, unless they are out of luck, in which case "it was another shore altogether that he would take you to".

Similarly, animals in Setterfield's tale are made of something knowing and sympathetic. One pig in particular is recalled with longing by Armstrong. Maud "listened to him as no other sow had ever listened", acting as a patient and gentle counsellor and foreshadowing the emergence of psychoanalysis that was bubbling out of Austria. "Sometimes it was only by speaking his thoughts that he knew he had them. It was surprising how a man's mind might remain half in shadow until the right confidante appeared, and Maud had been that confidante."

Further downstream, Armstrong "hears tell" of a book recently written by a fellow that "proposed that man was a clever kind of monkey". "He had found that the line that separated humans from the animal kingdom to be a porous one."

Science, magic, the spirit world and some Hardy-esque family drama. It's all here. And of course beneath the story's surface waters flows a calmly momentous undercurrent (yes, yes, I know) about the self-fictionalising we all do with sorrows and situations we find difficult to deal with. A common truth, perhaps, but here clothed in splendid finery.

Indo Review