The Swan Inn at Radcot on the bank of the Thames is a place famous for its storytelling. Every night the people of the village gather there to drink, to listen to tales of local folklore, myth, magic and history and to entertain their friends with stories of their own. But the old stories are growing stale and the listeners are ready for something new…
On the night of the winter solstice in 1887, a man appears in the doorway of the Swan – injured, wet from the river, and carrying the seemingly lifeless body of a young girl. Rita Sunday, who has some medical knowledge and acts as nurse and midwife for Radcot, is called to the inn and, unable to find a pulse, concludes that the girl is dead. Hours later, after attending to the man’s injuries, Rita looks at the child again and is amazed to find that she has started to breathe. It seems that the little girl will survive after all, but she can’t or won’t speak and tell anyone who she is or where she came from.
For the drinkers at the Swan, the girl’s apparent death and miraculous return to life is a wonderful story in itself, but it also provides a starting point around which many other stories begin to unfold and entwine. What is the girl’s name? Who are her parents? How did she end up in the river? Questions are raised and answers are searched for, theories are suggested and people come forward to claim the child as their own – but what is the truth? Will we ever know? As Rita grows closer to Henry Daunt, the man who pulled the girl from the water, they try to find a solution to the mystery and uncover yet more stories as they do so.
I am tempted to discuss some of those stories here and to talk about the characters who feature in them, but I’m not going to because I would risk spoiling some of the surprises Once Upon a River contains. Instead I’m going to stay on safer ground and discuss the role the river plays in the novel, both physically and metaphorically. The river is a constant presence right from the first chapter and the people in the story live and work on or around it – gravel-diggers, cressmen, bargemen and boat-menders. Their favourite folk tales revolve around the river too, including the legend of Quietly the ferryman who guides people in trouble either to safety or to ‘the other side’. The river and its surroundings give the novel a strong sense of place, although the sense of time is less clear – we are told that it has been five hundred years since the Battle of Radcot Bridge in 1387 but, apart from some references to photography, I felt that the story could have been set at a much earlier time in history.
The story itself flows like a river, carrying the characters – and the reader – gently along with the current. And like the tributaries of a river, there are other stories which began months or years before the girl’s arrival at the Swan and we go back to explore those stories too. This can make the novel feel slow at times and some patience is needed while the backgrounds of the various characters are explored, but I never felt bored. I was prepared to wait and see where the river took me and who the little girl would turn out to be. I was happy with the ending, although I do have one small criticism which is that I thought the way Rita’s story ended was very predictable and I would have preferred her to do have done something different.
I enjoyed Once Upon a River much more than Diane Setterfield’s previous novel, Bellman and Black; possibly more than The Thirteenth Tale too, as I didn’t love that one as much as most people seemed to. If you’ve never read any of her books before, though, I would recommend trying any or all of them to see what you think.
Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.