Diane Setterfield, author of The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black, is familiar with crafting classic novels for modern audiences. Her use of English countrysides predating the technology era is becoming a staple of her work, and audiences desiring an idyllic setting can always rely on Setterfield’s apropos narration. Her third outing, Once Upon a River, opens, appropriately, on the River Thames, quickly establishing the cast of locals that have cropped up along its banks, detailing who is likely to frequent what pub. The Red Lion at Kelmscott, for example, is where one would go for musical entertainment, just as the Plough outside of Buscot is the place to look for a fight. Naturally, Setterfield’s story begins at the place where everyone goes to hear a good story told – The Swan at Radcott.
The action begins when a round of drunken storytelling is interrupted by the arrival of a badly beaten man with a young child in tow, collapsing as soon as he gets into the doorway. It’s an event in and of itself that forms the basis of new stories told by The Swan’s regulars, especially with regards to the arrival of the young child. First pronounced dead by Rita Sunday, the local nurse whom everyone trusts, the little girl has a miraculous recovery, and the story of her resuscitation spreads as quickly as it takes each of the Swan’s regulars to make it home and speak of what they witnessed. Eventually, the news of the girl’s arrival reaches far enough to attract onlookers who are curious to know: who is this child, and to whom does she belong?
The narrative then shifts to various threads, until it’s clear that three different families believe the girl to be one of their own. Could it be the Vaughns’ kidnapped daughter, the Armstongs’ abandoned granddaughter, or perhaps housekeeper Lily White’s long-lost sister? In the process of clearing up the mystery, readers are introduced to a rotating cast of characters, until it becomes almost difficult to keep track of the varying plotlines, especially as they begin to intersect with each other.
Setterfield’s ambitious use of narrative devices might be the only weakness here, as her novel presents such a sprawling story that it is a lot to take in. Perspectives shift and the timeline tends to move forward and back, but her characters are well-developed, each sympathetic enough. For the families laying claim to the lost child, no matter how dubious those claims might be, it’s understood why they’d go to such great lengths to fill the respective voids in their lives. The alternative for each is to face an unsavory reality; it’s easier for them to hope instead. Through it all, the story is anchored by the presence of Rita Sunday, who does her best to figure out the child’s rightful heritage.
Once Upon a River is best described as episodic, each new chapter an opportunity to visit the various plot threads until they begin to tie into each other. The narrative often jumps around in nonlinear fashion and makes use of the occasional digression – just as many of the great story tellers inside the Swan at Radcott themselves often do. The characters are endearing, situations relatable, and the conclusion satisfying enough you may be encouraged to seek out Setterfield’s previous works.