‘Once upon a river’ was a magical, fairy-tale read – Diane Setterfield’s storytelling is powerful and allows you to suspend disbelief. Set in the nineteenth century on the upper Thames it starts at the winter solstice, and whilst the regulars at The Swan are entertaining themselves by telling stories the door bursts open and in steps an injured stranger carrying the drowned corpse of a child. Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life …. And here the questions begin.
There is a wide cast of characters – mainly wholesome decent folk – whom you really care about and in the end the good were uplifted and the bad got their just deserts. However the main character winding its way throughout the book is the river itself – its currents controlling the lives of those who live along its banks. There are many traditions and superstitions related to it including that of Quietly, the ferryman, who collects those in difficulties on the river and either brings them back to live again or takes them on to the other side.
Scientific and rational thought play a part as well. The book is set at a time when science and technology were really taking off – the age of invention – and prominent in the story is photography. Rita, the nurse approaches the mystery in a very logical way.
We discussed the role of nature and nurture in determining a person’s character, the ability of some to rise above circumstance, the dignity of some of the characters who stood on the edge of the society, the impact of loss and grief.
Setterfield’s writing flows along easily, often with the rhythms of oral storytelling. I felt the story and her portrayal of a rural community had echoes of George Elliott’s Silas Marner.