If I’ve taken my time to get round to reviewing Once Upon A River, it’s because I don’t know quite how to approach what must be up there with the best books I’ve read this year.
These days I don’t read much literary fiction and haven’t read anything by Diane Setterfield, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The story begins at some point in the late nineteenth century, in the Swan Inn on the River Thames. It’s winter and the regulars are sitting telling stories when and injured man staggers in and collapses — and he’s carrying a drowned child.
The man survives and the little girl turns out not to be drowned but that’s the beginning of the mystery. The child can’t be identified and there are three families who are, or claim to be, missing a daughter of that age. The wealthy Vaughans lost their daughter, Amelia, to a kidnapper and she was never returned. Little Alice went missing when her mother committed suicide, and housekeeper Lily is improbably convinced that the girl is her little sister, Anne. That’s the plot, but it’s so much more complicated than that. And it’s a tale made wonderful by the telling.
I’m a sucker for a proper setting, for a book that’s bedded into its landscape, and this book follows the river. All the families are tied to it. It gives and it takes away, a constant presence and a constant risk. The book is peopled by a multitude of characters, far too many to mention individually, but every one of them is believable and their lives are woven together.
Diane Setterfield tells a tale that twists and turns like the river itself, revealing secrets and surprises at every turn and leading to a satisfying conclusion. The real lives are woven with the folklore of the river and the ever-present spectre of Quietly, the boatman who appears to those who fall into the river, taking those whose time has come to the darkness of the river and returning those who aren’t ready to die to the safety of the bank.
Once Upon A River is a compelling, moving book, and I absolutely loved it.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.