Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River mimics the river that runs through its chapters. Like the Thames, this novel is alternately meandering and rushing, dirty and fertile—probably just like Setterfield intended. The novel even begins in that most English of institutions: the pub. The Swan of Radcot, upriver from London, is the home of storytellers who suddenly find themselves at witnesses to a miraculous story when a severely injured man suddenly bursts into the common room with what appears to be a drowned child in his hands. These witnesses spend almost as much time trying to figure out how to tell the story of the little girl as they do trying to figure out who she is, where she came from, and what should become of her.
The injured man is Henry Daunt, a photographer who is capturing scenes of life along the Thames in the mid-nineteenth century. He might not have stopped at the Swan if he hadn’t come to misfortune at the appropriately named Devil’s Weir. Daunt isn’t much of a mystery to men who know their stretch of the river like the back of their hands; the girl in his arms is. At first, everyone thinks the poor girl drowned in the river, but she suddenly revives. The puzzle of how she apparently came back to life is immediately displaced by the question of who her family is. She might be the long-lost daughter of the wealthy and grief-stricken Vaughans. There’s an equal chance that she’s the daughter of a wastrel and his abandoned, suicidal wife. The Vaughans claim her when the wastrel gives up his claim, though his father—the wonderfully kind and gentle farmer, Robert Armstrong—is more than willing to help bring the girl up.
Each chapter focuses on different characters. Robert Armstong follows his son’s tracks to find out just what criminal mischief the young man has been up to in an effort to find out if the girl is his granddaughter, Alice. Anthony Vaughan struggles with his doubt about whether the girl really is his lost Amelia returned to the family. Meanwhile, Henry Daunt and Rita Sunday, the woman who nursed Daunt and the little girl, resist all hints of supernatural activity to find a rational explanation for what on earth (or on the river) is going on. Meanwhile, mentally tortured Lily White has her own theories about who the girl is and how she came to be in the Swan, dead to all appearances.
Once Upon a River is an incredible read, full of wonderful heroes and villains. There’s humor, love, terror, curiosity, anger, betrayal, and much more. It’s definitely the kind of book I want to buy for myself and my library, and then talk a bunch of people into reading as soon as I have copies in my hands. Do yourselves a favor and read this book, immediately if not sooner.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 December 2018.