Book Review: Once Upon a River
January 10, 2019
More than 100 years ago, in the town of Radcot "along the upper reaches of the Thames," sits the Swan Inn, as famous for its storytelling as it is for its thatched roof. It's here that "Once Upon a River," the new novel by Diane Setterfield, begins.
The inn has been in the Ockwell family as long as anyone can remember. Even after Margot Ockwell married Joe Bliss and they had 13 children — 12 "robust" daughters and finally one son — the tales at the inn have always drawn more crowds than the drinks.
On Solstice night, the longest night of the year, those tales and drinks are interrupted by an injured man no one knows, a man who has clearly been at the mercy of the river. In his arms is a young girl. The man collapses. The child, as far as anyone can tell, has drowned.
Rita Sunday, the nurse and midwife for the town, is called in and is able to revive both of the strangers. As the town members try to discover what has happened, new questions arise almost as quickly as new tales are devised.
Who is this stranger? How did he come to be at The Swan? Why are there stains on his fingers?
Who is the child? What is the stranger's relationship to her? Where has she come from? Most importantly, how was she able to come back to life after being pronounced dead?
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The incident also gains the attention of three families in the vicinity, and each family will lay claim to the young 4-year-old.
That's a lot of plot. However, Setterfield's book never bogs down thanks to Rita Sunday, herself victimized by the restrictions placed on women in the 19th century. Her dealings with the three families making claims on the young girl keep the book afloat.
Setterfield's new novel is part mystery and part thriller, part bewitching fable and part subtle social commentary. But more than anything, it is about survival. It encourages storytelling as a tool to help us make it through our own worlds, for the world of "Once Upon a River" perhaps isn't as far removed from ours as we would like to think.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.
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