Once Upon a River: Starts off strong but then then becomes too tame

Once Upon a River by Diane SetterfieldOnce Upon a River by Diane SetterfieldOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield offers up a great premise and a heaping sense of atmosphere in her newest novel, Once Upon a River (2018), but while the book offers up plenty of satisfying moments, I felt it fell short of its potential and was also somewhat marred by Setterfield’s lack of trust in her readers, though both of those complaints are admittedly more subjective than my typical criticism, so more than usual, one’s mileage may vary here.

As for that wholly engrossing premise, the book opens on the winter solstice in the late 19th century with a man stumbling into The Swan, an inn on the Thames known for its storytelling. In his hands is a young girl, seemingly dead, an assumption confirmed by the local nurse, Rita Sunday. But not much later, the girl miraculously comes back to life, though unable to speak. Who she is, where she came from, and how she ended up nearly drowned (or perhaps wholly drowned) and saved by the photographer Daunt remains a mystery even after Daunt regains consciousness, as he has little memory of events. She becomes therefore a palimpsest, and soon three people are writing their own story on her blank slate. Lily White, the parsonage’s housekeep, claims she’s her sister Ann (despite what would seem to be an implausibly large age difference). Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe (to a varying degree) that she is their long-lost daughter, kidnapped several years ago and now amazingly returned to them. And Robert Armstrong, a well-off and highly educated African-American farmer, thinks she is his granddaughter via his black sheep son Robin. And weaving throughout all this is the river itself, mysterious and meandering, and home to all sorts of stories, including those of Quickly the Ferryman who helps those in need on the river, unless it is their time, in which case he helps them to the “other side.”

Diane Setterfield

The opening scenes are wonderfully compelling and atmospheric, introducing major characters and themes (the power of story, death, loss), the extended metaphor of the river being akin to a story, and offering up a genre that feels like a mish-mash of gothic, magical realism, and Dickens/Austen. Each of the major characters has a strong backstory. Rita, thanks to her job, has a fear of motherhood based off of the horrors of childbirth she’s been witness to. Daunt is always taking pictures of other peoples’ family, while he himself is a lonely traveler. The Vaughans are the walking dead, having never recovered individually or as a couple from the loss of their daughter. And Armstrong is a man of many complications — an African-American in a white world, an educated man among the less so, part of a mixed marriage, a large man of gentle thought and action, a man who converses with his pig more than his estranged son. Lily is fierce in her belief the girl is Anne, but has horrid nightmares of her sister’s ghost accusing her of something. Meanwhile, Joseph, the long-time owner of The Swan, is dying, with his wife and children doing most of the work in the inn.

As Setterfield talks about bringing in “tributaries” — these other stories — I thought we were heading into a series of linked stories, but she keeps the structure more novelistic, simply following the different characters’ storylines. And this is when I began to feel Once Upon a River was moving in too tame a fashion for me. The structure was familiar, and soon the plotting as well, as we get the usual hallmarks of 19th century fiction — lost relatives, overheard conversations, mysterious letters. And then the atmospheric became too concrete as we were privy to all sorts of interior monologues, dialogues, narrative descriptions or overt metaphors that starkly laid out what I would have preferred was left a bit more to my own discernment. Here, for instance, is a scene with Vaughan riding home after a trying day:

His mount had its muzzle to the ground, exploring for something sweet among the winter bracken. “There’s nothing there for you. Nothing for me either.” He was overwhelmed with a great weariness…

I got the connection between the horse’s futile seeking and his own. Even the “sweet” was a bit much for me, but I certainly didn’t need the spoken words. I’ll grant that this style is right out of the 19th century playbook (“The child … was the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter endowed with life!”) and, as well, some might not find it such an annoyance, but it marred the reading experience for me and grew more noticeable (and thus more annoying) as the novel progressed. The same for how faithfully it hewed to the plots and twists of the form. Finally, it all seemed to wrap up too neatly for me, even its supernatural aspect.

Setterfield had me under the river’s spell early on, and there were good moments throughout Once Upon a River, such as a wonderfully playful scenes with the inn regulars debating a storyteller’s word choice and the running contrast between those who are full of empathy and those who are utterly callous to the fate of others, but by the midpoint, while the book kept me engaged enough to keep going to the end, it lost its sense of wonder and discomfort and settled into a semi-satisfying but too familiar tale. By the time the river — the metafictional stand-in for story — had flooded its banks, I was wishing Setterfield had let her own story escape its constraints and become just as dangerous and unruly.

Published in December 2018. From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAYThe Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town. On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed. Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless. Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known. Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. I had some similar problems with The Thirteenth Tale when I read it years and years ago.

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