In Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, Newman is trying to tell a story to the fellow regulars at the Swan Inn, nestled on the bank of the Thames. The endeavour proves difficult as Newman struggles to find the right words to say, but he is told by one Owen Albright that events in a story do not have to be described exactly as they happened.
‘I’m starting to wish I’d not told it at all, now. Telling a thing’s harder than I ever knew.’183
‘There’s an art to it’ Albright soothed. “You’ll get the hang of it.’
‘I’ve got to the age of thirty-seven just opening my mouth and letting the words out, and never had any trouble so far… No, I shall go by the old way, my words shall come as they like’
The art of storytelling is the current flowing through Setterfield’s novel, which takes the reader on a mysterious journey along the Thames. Why do we tell stories? Better still, who gets to tell them? There is a magic in telling stories which gives them a life of their own. These questions stir under the surface whilst a series of strange and inexplicable events play out in Once Upon a River.
The tale begins with a bloodied and river-drenched figure entering the Swan Inn one night carrying a dead child, to the alarm and excitement of the inn regulars. Local nurse Rita is tending to the child when she miraculously returns to life. The narrative then revolves around the dead-alive child’s identity and determining who she belongs to.
There is the wealthy Mr and Mrs Vaughan, who believe the girl is their kidnapped daughter. Then there is the farmer Mr Armstrong who believes she is the granddaughter of his rakish adopted son. The third claimant, Lily White, is convinced the girl is her sister who drowned many years ago as a child. Rita also becomes attached to the girl and wonders if she could be her mother.
While the unknown little girl remains silent, her story is told and re-told by the various characters, getting louder and wilder with each variation. Setterfield makes it clear that while the storyteller has a certain power, it is the mute child who has the real control as she makes the truth of her origins an enigma.
Magic, myth and science combine in Once Upon a River as nurse Rita tests various theories to determine how the little girl came back to life. Did she really die or was it the shock of the cold water which stopped her heart momentarily? Or perhaps the girl is entangled with the supernatural ferryman character who looms in the background of the narrative. It is a debate of fact and fiction which reflects Setterfield’s very exploration of storytelling.
As much as Once Upon a River is about family and the relationship between parents and children, it is also concerned with the flow of narrative itself. Setterfield’s narrator often addresses the reader, questions us and ultimately draws us into complicity.
“We might, in this quiet hour before dawn, leave this river and this long night and trace the tributaries back, to see not there beginnings- mysterious, unknowable things- but, more simply, what they were doing yesterday.”54
This is one of the great joys of the book. We are included in the adventure of the story.
Family ties and complicated histories are another compelling aspect in Once Upon a River. The narrative manages each family study deftly, if perhaps a little too briefly, which is perhaps owing to the volume of characters to cover. One of the most interesting of these is Mr Armstrong, a mixed-race gentleman who continues to support his wayward step-son Robin as he descends into a life of crime.
Setterfield shows how the constant love of a parent can be blinding in the cases of Mr Armstrong and Mrs Vaughan. I also appreciated how the novel presented the bloody dangers of childbirth as a real issue making female characters hesitate before becoming mothers.
The book’s ending is a satisfying one as children are returned, in various guises, to the longing families. Mr Armstrong is rewarded when his granddaughter is returned to him, the Vaughans are gifted with a new baby and Rita also becomes pregnant.
Once Upon a River is a beautiful homage to stories and the way they enable experiences which can be shared by many.