Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (2019)
Updated: Jul 10
Take a Dickensian cast—Gothic Dickens rather than comic Dickens— a historical 19th-century setting, add in a liberal amount of folklore, some post-modern psychological character depth, and that elusive quality of magical writing that blurs the borders of historical fiction with fairy tale fantasy, and you have Once Upon a River. And that’s me trying to convey in one (over-long) sentence what kind of subtle, complex, and wonderful story this is.
I often thought of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend while reading this. Both stories have the Thames river as a theme and setting, with a plot that turns upon the mystery of someone coming back from the dead—a mystery that alters the lives and reveals the hearts of all those connected to it. Themes of death and resurrection, the material body and the immaterial mystery of the heart, these overlap between both novels.
This is very much a character driven story, populated by the people who live along the river bank: an atheistic nurse and midwife, raised in a nunnery, searching for a rational explanation for something that cannot be explained; a woman innkeeper strong and hardy, with a dying husband and a fragile son; a wealthy couple shattered by grief at the loss of their only child, and bordering on emotional disintegration; a young woman, tormented by dark secrets and visions of her dead sister, and a mixed-race farmer, whose heart of gold is broken over a wicked son.
They all differ widely in status and education, but their stories slowly interconnect, like little tributaries finding their way together to merge into one river, having their source in the same place—their need for healing and love. They are all outsiders in some way, due to race, disability or trauma. What brings them together is the appearance of a child who appears one winter solstice night: a child who seems to be dead, but now is alive. Every person who comes into contact with her feels that she belongs to them in some way, while she seems to belong only to the River. Emotional wounds are opened, and life and death ebbs and flows between the characters as they come to terms with their own hearts, and rewrite their lives as new stories.
This is categorised as historical fiction, but it reads like a fairy tale; there are dragons, an uncanny pig, and a spectral ferryman who haunts the river either to save a life, or take it into the unknown. I loved the multi-layered themes: science and magic, life and death, the rational and the mysterious. The lines between madness and reality, joy and sorrow, the seen and the unseen are often fluid lines indeed.
This has some adult themes of abuse, but I didn’t find them gratuitous, and thought they were conveyed sensitively and without graphic imagery.