A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science?
The Guardian described Diane Setterfield as “a mistress of the craft of storytelling” and I could not agree more. I was lucky enough to be accepted by NetGalley to read and review this text and I will be forever grateful. I opened up Once Upon A River expecting a magical story – and that’s what I got – but nothing could prepare me for the masterful and beautiful writing from start to finish. I was hooked within the first few pages and continued to love it until the very end, eventually awarding it a five star rating.
As I mentioned above, Setterfield’s writing really is a cut-above as she includes the most beautiful descriptions time and again within her novel. I highlighted quote upon quote of stunning writing that simply flows off the tongue much like the river she is describing throughout.
By night (and this story begins at night) the bridge was drowned black, and it was only when your ears noticed the low and borderless sound of great quantities of moving water that you could make out the stretch of liquid blackness that flowed outside the window, shifting and undulating, darkly illuminated by some energy of its own making. (1%)
This example of beautiful storytelling came right at the beginning of the novel and I immediately knew that I was going to love this book. Yes, I enjoy books that may not be very well-written but that have an engaging and exciting plot. However, there is nothing I admire more in a book than good story-telling that clearly comes from an intelligent and imaginative mind. Often a book can begin with good writing, as though to hook the reader and showcase an author’s talent at the outset, but this quickly falls by the wayside to make room for the plot. Once Upon A River, however, is not one of those texts. Setterfield continues this vivid description throughout the novel and this works to maintain the magical atmosphere that is so key to the book.
A second aspect of the novel that I particularly loved was its treatment of the theme of storytelling. Setterfield continually weaves this theme in throughout the novel as the community tells and retells the story of the little girl and what happens after her revival. She highlights the importance of the oral tradition of storytelling in this community, something we have lost as technology has taken over our lives. Though this may seem worlds away to us now, Setterfield uses it to scrutinise our own ideas of storytelling and how it can be manipulated for a desired effect. For example, she writes,
Every detail of the day’s events was gone over, the facts were weighed and combined, quantities of surmising, eavesdropping and supposition were stirred in for flavour, and a good sprinkling of rumour added like yeast to make it rise. (36%)
Here, the author compares storytelling to a recipe and suggests that calculations are made in order to produce the best end-product. People are not simply relating what happened but are adding things in “for flavour” and manipulating facts to make a better story. We often see ideas like this within literature through the use of an unreliable narrator (one of my best themes), but Setterfield merely uses her plot to explore the act of writing. There are multiple quotes like this throughout, suggesting that a story must be altered in order to get the right reaction from its readers (or listeners). Nevertheless, though the characters react with distaste to a ‘boring’ story, they do not appreciate complete fabrication either as the author writes, “storytelling was one thing, lying quite another” (46%). This is an interesting premise as it scrutinises the idea of ‘artistic license’. In both literature and film, we, as an audience, look for something that will excite us and keep us engaged and, therefore, allow for a little manipulation and bending of the truth. However, outright lying will always be frowned upon.
Finally, one thing I will always mention if it is well-articulated within a novel is the theme of gender and I absolutely loved Setterfield’s exploration of it. The author portrays a world where women are thought of as more fragile and virtuous creatures when she writes of how, when attempting to nurse an ailing man, “her patient was naked and a white handkerchief had been placed to protect his modesty and Rita’s reputation” (4%). Though it is her job, the men still decide that “an unmarried woman could not strip a man’s clothes from him without unsettling the natural order of things” (4%). This is a scenario we can recognise as in previous centuries, and even throughout other parts of the world today, women are required to act in certain ways that have been decreed as ‘ladylike’ or ‘feminine’ by men. However, Setterfield challenges these notions throughout by illustrating the potential women have beyond the confines of this role. Rita relates how she is “more use to the world as a nurse than as a wife and mother” (5%). It is sad that she believes a woman can either be one or the other – take a private role or a public one – but it is important that she is exploring this and deciding on her role for herself, rather than having it dictated to her.
I want to say a huge thank you to NetGalley and Transworld Publishers for providing me with an e-ARC of this novel for review. I absolutely adored this text and I am sure I will revisit it at some point! Have you read it? Is it on your TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!