Stories are like rivers, and this is one whose current you’ll want to surrender to.
Following Diane Setterfield’s somewhat underwhelming Bellman & Black there is now Once Upon a River which fortunately is closer to the standard of her debut novel that earned her acclaim, The Thirteenth Tale. Set in 19th century England it features a mystery that begins one winter night in a tavern by the Thames. A stranger collapses inside with the drowned body of a girl who later returns miraculously to life.
Following this, a varied array of well-crafted characters are introduced along with the question of whose child this is. This drives the story as different parents who thought they lost their child to the river lay claim to the girl and many a character’s tragic tale is unveiled. Lost children become a central theme as the relationship between parent and child is portrayed in interestingly different ways.
The story makes keen use of folklore and the tradition of oral storytelling in its narrative style and setting. Vivid description, dialogue and action is expertly balanced, especially at the beginning of the story. It is an atmospheric novel that draws you in with a narrator that is engaging and invites the reader to consider the nature of storytelling as the narrative develops. Stories are like rivers, Setterfield explains, and makes elegant use of the metaphor, often to great effect.
At times, the river imagery can get heavy handed. Also, the exaggerated narrator voice that is most of the time used effectively to enhance the focus on storytelling can at times be overly theatrical. An example of this is the tendency to have characters make dramatic statements as one. This sadly pulls the reader out of the experience. Nor does the story’s conclusion quite live up to the promise of its impressive beginning.
Largely Once Upon a River is a captivating novel with a memorable setting where the river is as much a mysterious character as the little girl. It offers a great combination of folklore and historical setting, engaging characters and more than one mystery to uncover. Also, the cover for the paperback is gorgeous.