One Upon a River by Diane Setterfield begins in the Swan Inn at Radcot along the River Thames. The year is 1887. In addition to serving ale, cider, and meals, the Swan offers its patrons a daily fare of stories told either by the owner or by a patron (with others chiming in with their two pennies worth to help the storyteller along). So, if you want to hear a good story, the Swan is where you need to be. And that is where Diane Setterfield takes us to share a delightful story, delightfully told.
It begins on the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The patrons are huddled together, drinking ale, telling stories, and embellishing each story in the telling of it. Suddenly, a badly injured man with a bloodied and misshapen face bursts into the inn carrying what appears to be a large puppet. The puppet turns out not to be a puppet, after all. Instead, it is a lifeless young girl. And the young girl turns out not to be dead, after all. She slowly regains consciousness and becomes the subject of future stories as the child who died and came back to life. And so the story unfolds.
The mystery at the heart of the novel is the identity of the child. Who is she? Is she the young girl who was kidnapped two years ago? The sister of the cleaning lady at the parsonage? Or the daughter of the woman who committed suicide? Or is she someone else entirely—an ethereal creature from a different time and place?
The novel is populated with believable and delightful characters: the proprietors of the Swan with their brood of children; their customers; a farmer of mixed racial heritage with his wife and children; a young couple still reeling from the loss their child to kidnappers; a photographer; a midwife; and a host of villagers who make up the medley of characters. But what would a story be without a villain? So, add to the mix a ruthless villain, kidnapping, murder, and blackmail. And haunting the river is the mysterious Quietly whose name is spoken in hushed whispers. He ferries people safely to the river bank if their time has not yet come, and he ferries them to the other side where they are never to be seen again if their time is up. Throughout it all is the ever-present river with its winding ways and changing currents, harboring mysteries in its enchanting waters.
With interlocking threads of magical realism, folklore, science, and myth, Setterfield has composed a magic carpet that whisks you to a different time, a different place, and the liminal space between the real and the unreal. Her writing is eloquent, haunting, descriptive, and immersive. The dialogue is so realistic that one gets the sense of eavesdropping on real conversations. Her lines, peppered with irony and a gentle humor, reveal a charming ability for turning a phrase.
Setterfield is a talented storyteller with an uncanny knack of making you feel as if you are curled up in a comfy chair, cradling a hot cup of tea, and listening to a gifted storyteller as she tells her wondrous tale.
A delightful story, delightfully told, celebrating the power of story-telling. How can it be anything but highly recommended?