‘Once Upon A River’ by Diane Setterfield – Highly Recommended

This was such an extraordinary book that I’ve been trying for two weeks now to think of how to do it justice in a review. I’ve decided that I can’t. All I can do is share my experience of reading it and hope that it encourages you to read it too.

I bought ‘Once Upon A River’ for the gorgeous cover and the clever title. The Magical Realism tag attached to it almost discouraged me, it’s an oxymoron that seldom justifies either word. The fact that the audiobook is sixteen hours long also gave me pause. Still, my wife loved this book so I decided to jump right in.

This was my reaction after fifteen minutes:

‘I‘m in love. The language is a beautiful as the cover. The text flows like a river: smooth forward motion with hidden depths and currents. Best of all, the magic here is storytelling itself. I’m looking forward to the next sixteen hours.’

In the end, I spent nearly three weeks in the thrall of this book not because it was sixteen hours long but because the storytelling was mesmerising and the language was gorgeous. I sank into it a chapter at a time like taking a warm bath at the end of a long day.

So, if it was that good, what was it about?

That’s where I start to stumble in writing a review. When I summarise the book, it sounds like a dry, academic, literary conceit. For example:

Once Upon A River is an extended exploration of how we use storytelling to weave personal and collective truth out of memory, imagination, hopes, fears, and a need to find an answer. The river represents the flow of the narrative, with our individual stories as tributaries feeding into the main narrative, merging with and changing the stories of others and together creating a powerful current that sweep us along and occasionally breaks the banks of our expectations.’

Are you bored yet? I know I would be.

The problem is that that describes the book as it might have been if it had been written as an academic exercise by a critic or a literary theorist. The actual book is more like being part of a masterclass given by a dancer whose talent and expertise and passion transform the dance from formal steps to music to something that reaches past your conscious mind, summoning your emotions and igniting your imagination. The critic’s version would explain the anatomy of storytelling. Diane Setterfield’s version adds a spark of life that animates the fully understood collection of flesh blood and bones.

She demonstrates such a playful mastery that soon you forget that you’re exploring the nature of storytelling, in the same way that you forget that the movie on the screen is not real, and give yourself up to the story itself.

‘Once Upon A River’ is rich with storytellers, reaching far beyond the authorial voice, and each storyteller has their own tone, like a leitmotiv in an opera, so you always know who you’re listening to.

All the main characters see and think about the world in very different ways and all of them make sense, whether it is the nurses need to analyse and measure so that she can know the answer, or the photographers visual memory and imagination that turns ideas and emotions into images, or the illiterate housekeeper’s thoughts tormented by fear and guilt, or the gentleman farmer so wedded to benign rationality that when he encounters the extraordinary he renders it palatable by believing his mind is deceiving him.

Then the are the drinkers at The Swan, who form a kind of collective character, perhaps representing us all, who Setterfield, without reducing their humanity of individuality, turns into a thinking, talking, entity, that uses storytelling to reach a consensus on how events should be understood. Except that the story never stops, the narrative flows on, sometimes escaping from the channel the consensus bound it by and the whole thing needs to be reconsidered.

This is a book filled as much with emotions as ideas. There is beauty, not just in the descriptions of the river but in the hearts, imagination and actions of the people. There is also pain and grief and guilt and fear and pure, unashamed malice.

There is an understanding of the kinship between story, imagination and memory which feels not so much like a revelation by the author but a reminder of something we all know but don’t pay enough attention to.

There is respect for curiosity and the desire to know the causes of things that sits alongside the possibility of the inexplicable and acknowledges the porous membranes that enclose our definition of the impossible.

Most of all there is the language that, like the best music uses its rhythms and cadences to reach past our analytical minds and touch a knowledge that we can feel but may not be able to express except in smiles and tears and the changing beat of our hearts.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes in the book was a Magic Lantern show, held in The Swan, that used photographs to bring together the visual and the verbal and create a new shared belief in what the ‘real’ story was.

Yet all this, as wonderful as it is, is still not the heart of the book. That lies not in the way in which the story is told but in the story itself and the people who live in it, construct it, change it and are changed by it.

This is a mystery story that starts in The Swan on Winter Solstice night when a man, half-drowned and bleeding from his wounds, staggers in from the river carrying a dead little girl in his arms. A dead little girl who later wakes. A little girl who, although pale and mute and a stranger, triggers in others a strong need to protect and cherish her. A little girl that is claimed by more than one father.

The mystery of the little girl is the current that captures the main characters and changes the course of their lives. It’s a mystery with as many twists and turns as the river itself. As we follow it past kidnappings and suicides and killings and malicious abuse, we uncover secrets wrapped in shame and guilt and, with each reveal, the tension grows, our need to know becomes an obsession and our desire for everything to be all right in the end becomes acute.

Flowing through the mystery are love stories and tales of torment, happy stable lives, and enduring hatreds. There is also the legend of Quietly the boatman who it’s said, silently patrols the river, rescuing those in distress whose time has not yet come and taking the rest on to the other side.

Yet it is the people who make the story. There is a large cast of characters, some to cheer for, some to hate, some to pity and some who you nod at and say, ‘i’ve met them.’ My favourites were the nurse and the photographer. But then there’s the little boy who can’t hold a story in his head long enough to tell it. And the poor housekeeper who was so brave and yet so timid. And… Yes, there’s a whole colony of them living in my imagination now.

I seldom re-read books but I already know that ‘Once Upon A River’ is a book I’ll come back to and I know it will give me something fresh each time.

I recommend the audiobook version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. She was the perfect choice for this book. She has a huge range and she seems to understand every nuance of the book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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