Once Upon a River (2018): Diane Setterfield

★★★★½

Stories are like rivers. They have sources and meanders, tributaries and backwaters, and often they change along their length, swelling from modest little stream to raging torrent. The regulars of The Swan inn at Radcot, on the banks of the Thames, are famous for the stories they weave as the great river flows past their door, but none of them has yet come up with a tale as strange as the one that unfolds in their very own inn on one dark night. It’s solstice night in the depths of winter, and a half-drowned, bleeding man staggers through the inn’s door carrying a drowned child in his arms. The man needs care; the child, all assume, is dead. But when the local healer Rita goes to prepare the child’s corpse in the outhouse, she discovers to her shock that the little girl is alive. Silent; enigmatic; self-contained. But breathing. The resurrection of this strange child immediately makes The Swan famous – such stories there are to tell, now! – but it also stirs up old griefs, losses and desires. Who is the child? And who will claim her? This is my favourite of Setterfield’s books so far: a deliciously eerie fable which blurs the line between reality and myth, and suggests that stories might – just might – come true.

Helena Vaughan used to be fearless. She adored the river, rowed on it with a wild abandon, and ignored the expectations for a gentleman’s daughter. Now, though, she is married and full of fear. She still loves the river but it has now become a mocking barrier between herself and her daughter Amelia, snatched from her nursery years before. When Helena hears of the little girl rescued from the river at the brink of death, a child whose identity no one knows, her heart leaps. She and her husband rush to The Swan and Helena’s bruised maternal heart immediately latches onto this curious girl. It is Amelia: she claims to be convinced. But she isn’t the only one who thinks she recognises the child. The rakish Robin Armstrong, despair of his parents, has fathered a little girl called Alice on one of his amours. When her mother dies, Alice vanishes. Could she be the girl at The Swan? Robin seems to think so, but his father Robert – loving but disappointed by his son’s way of life – takes a more cautious approach. Never speaking, lost within her own world, this strange child is at the heart of an emotional tug-of-war between two families, each of whom see her as a way to complete their own story.

There are others who find the child troubling. Lily White, who lives a hardscrabble life on the edge of the river, thinks she recognises her sister Ann, lost many years ago but now, perhaps, returned to life. Henry Daunt, who staggered into The Swan with the child in his arms, has no direct connection to her, but is drawn into the hopes and fears of this remote community as he slowly convalesces from his head wound. And Rita, who long ago renounced the idea of ever having a child, finds herself strangely drawn to the fragile waif fished out of the river, whose appearance has stirred up so much trouble. As the de facto healer in this village, Rita is well placed to observe the worrying changes that begin to develop, as the impact of the child’s arrival spreads out from its epicentre like the ripples following an earthquake. Rita is practical – scientific, if need be. But she still feels a shiver down her spine at the thought of a child pulled half-living from the dark waters of the Thames. There are legends about that river, most famously that of the ferryman Quietly, who never speaks but sometimes saves those in trouble on the waters – and sometimes carries them away. It’s only a story but, as these people know better than most, stories usually have a kernel of truth to them somewhere.

The 19th-century setting adds a wonderful note of Gothic gloom to the story, as you would expect from the author of Bellman & Black and The Thirteenth Tale. However, apart from Henry Daunt’s profession as a photographer there is little to anchor this story in any particular time period. In this country village, modern developments have barely infiltrated lives based on folk wisdom, local stories and close-knit gossip. The book’s dominant flavour is not a sense of period, but a feeling of subtle uneasiness, like distant fingernails scraping a blackboard. In my mind, most of the book takes place in darkness or on overcast grey days, with mist seeping off the water and the river, like an ominous living creature, winding its way onward past The Swan. With just enough magic to enchant, and just enough of a ghost story to give you the midwinter shivers, this is a gorgeous seasonal treat.

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