Sunday, May 12, 2019

"Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River
by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

It’s that time again - book club! This month, we’re featuring Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. Each month you can read my review and the opinions of my fellow book clubbers. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Next month, we will be reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Please join us on 3 June to discuss.

It was the longest night of the year when the strangest of things happened ...
On 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 and in steps an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.
Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
And who does the little girl belong to?
An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

The Story Begins…
There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism. It was where you went for storytelling.
The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old and one was older still. These different elements had been harmonized by the thatch that roofed them, the lichen that grew on the old stones and the ivy that scrambled up the walls. In summertime day-trippers came out from the towns on the new railway, to hire a punt or a skiff at the Swan and spend an afternoon on the river with a bottle of ale and a picnic, but in winter the drinkers were all locals, and they congregated in the winter room. It was a plain room in the oldest part of the inn, with a single window pierced through the thick stone wall. In daylight this window showed you Radcot Bridge and the river flowing through its three serene arches. 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.
Nobody really knows how the tradition of storytelling started at the Swan, but it might have something to do with the Battle of Radcot Bridge. In 1387, five hundred years before the night this story began, two great armies met at Radcot Bridge. The who and the why of it are too long to tell, but the outcome was that three men died in battle – a knight, a varlet and a boy – and eight hundred souls were lost, drowned in the marshes, attempting to flee. Yes, that’s right. Eight hundred souls. That’s a lot of story. Their bones lie under what are now watercress fields. Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it, crate it up and send it to the towns on barges, but they don’t eat it. It’s bitter, they complain; so bitter it bites you back, and besides, who wants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts? When a battle like that happens on your doorstep and the dead poison your drinking water, it’s only natural that you would tell of it, over and over again. By force of repetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when the crisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what is more natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come to be applied to other tales?
The landlady of the Swan was Margot Ockwell. There had been Ockwells at the Swan for as long as anyone could remember, and quite likely for as long as the Swan had existed. In law her name was Margot Bliss, for she was married, but law was a thing for the towns and cities; here at the Swan she remained an Ockwell. Margot was a handsome woman in her late fifties. She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumoured she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes. She was the daughter of the last landlady and her grandmother and great-grandmother had run the inn before that, and nobody thought anything of it being women in charge at the Swan at Radcot. It was just the way it was.
Margot’s husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble, twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thames emerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more than a patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. They were born small and ailing and most of them were goners before they were grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened, until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and often before they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthood shorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, their noses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.
At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labour, Joe had left Kemble, to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. From Kemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewhere in the world, but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightily perverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty, stopped for a drink. The frail-looking young man with his floppy black hair that contrasted with his pallor sat unnoticed, eking out his glass of ale, admiring the innkeeper’s daughter and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be amongst people who spoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his head since boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Once upon a time … came out.
Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had brought him to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. With a bit of practice he found he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling, as well as any actor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told as much of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited close attention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by. Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan he knew how to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellbound too, and she him.
At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He won first prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He returned to Radcot grey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and at the end of it got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.
‘I don’t know …’ her mother said. ‘Can he work? Can he earn a living? How will he look after a family?’
‘Look at the takings,’ Margot pointed out. ‘See how much busier we have been since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don’t marry him, Ma. He might go away from here. Then what?’
It was true. People came more often to the inn those days, and from further away, and they stayed longer, to hear the stories Joe told. They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.
‘But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in here and admire you so – wouldn’t one of those do better?’
‘It is Joe that I want,’ Margot said firmly. ‘I like the stories.’
She got her way.
That was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, and in the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twenty years they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot’s thick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom young women with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now. One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller and one a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but in every other respect they were so alike that the drinkers could not tell them apart, and when the girls returned to help out at busy times they were universally known as Little Margot. After bearing all these daughters there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them had thought her years of child-bearing were at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, their only son.
With his short neck and his moon face, his almond eyes with their exaggerated upward tilt, his dainty ears and nose, the tongue that seemed too big for his constantly smiling mouth, Jonathan did not look like other children. As he grew, it became clear that he was different from them in other ways too. He was fifteen now, but where other boys of his age were looking forward impatiently to manhood, Jonathan was content to believe that he would live at the inn for ever with his mother and father, and wished for nothing else.
Margot was still a strong and handsome woman, and Joe’s hair had whitened, though his eyebrows were as dark as ever. He was now sixty, which was ancient for a Bliss. People put his survival down to the endlessness of Margot’s care for him. These last few years, he was sometimes so weak that he lay in bed for two or three days at a time, eyes closed. He was not sleeping; no, it was a place beyond sleep that he visited in these periods. Margot took his sinking spells calmly. She kept the fire in to dry the air, tilted cooled broth between his lips, brushed his hair and smoothed his eyebrows. Other people fretted to see him suspended so precariously between one liquid breath and the next, but Margot took it in her stride. ‘Don’t you worry, he’ll be all right,’ she would tell you. And he was. He was a Bliss, that’s all. The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy.
It was solstice night, the longest night of the year. For weeks the days had been shrinking, first gradually, then precipitously, so that it was now dark by mid-afternoon. As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]

Praise for the Book
“I was completely spellbound by this book. Numerous strands of the same story are skillfully woven into a magical web from which I, as a reader, had no desire to escape. Setterfield’s prose is beautiful, dark and eerily atmospheric, and her rich cast of characters convincingly illustrate the best and worst of humanity. Utterly brilliant!” ~ Ruth Hogan, internationally bestselling author of The Keeper of Lost Things and The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes
Once Upon a River is a delight, just marvelous. I devoured it in gulps.” ~ Jo Baker, internationally bestselling author of Longbourn
Once Upon A River succeeds in doing what you hope every book will do - pull you in from the first page, hold you captive in the middle, then leave you satisfied and thoughtful at the end. I loved it.” ~ Renee Knight, critically-acclaimed author of Disclaimer
“Diane Setterfield has created a true reading experience. Once Upon a River is the story of three missing girls and three desperate families all set against the Thames and woven together with magic, mystery, and mayhem. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and altogether wondrous. Simply put, it is a joy to read.” ~ Ariel Lawhon, author of I Was Anastasia
“Setterfield fills this richly layered plot with a fascinating cast of memorable characters who weave in and out of each other's lives.” ~ Booklist

Book Clubbers’ Thoughts

Denise: “Unfortunately, I only had time to read two chapters due to family commitments. But I will finish it.”
Heather: “It’s amazing that even today, people hang onto fairy tales, especially in England and Scotland.”
Jan: “I loved the descriptions and wondered: ‘How do these words flow out of her mind?’ I have been to the Cotswolds and found that the people are still quite primitive, sheltered, and unsophisticated. And they still believe in folklore, superstitions, and fables. I have also been to the source of the Thames, and it’s like it’s described in the book: a puddle at the base of a tree, with all the tributaries linking back. I listened to the audiobook version.”
Kerrie: “I adored it. The thing I enjoyed the most was the homage to the art of storytelling. Reality is suspended. There are so many literary references woven through the narrative, which greatly enriched the tale.”
Kerry: “I loved the storytelling aspect. My grandfather was a renowned storyteller, so I really got that side of it. The story meandered between the tranquil to the dramatic.”
Marie-Louise: “I was interested in the descriptions of the science of photography. I was curious about when the story was set. Passenger rail services to Oxford began in 1844, but the story felt much older. I like the parallel of the tributaries all leading back to the river, much like the story tangents all lead back to the main storyline.”
Maryann: “I absolutely loved it! I didn’t want to put it down. Jonathan obviously had Down’s syndrome, but his condition wasn’t named in the book. This fits in with the timeline, as the syndrome wasn’t formally identified until 1866.”
Consensus: Don’t miss this one!

My Review
I received this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

By Lynda Dickson
“A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.” So begins this tale set along the Thames River and its tributaries, starting at the Swan inn at Radcot, famous for its storytelling. It’s solstice night, the longest night of the year, “a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.” A stranger stumbles into the inn, carrying a little girl who, for all intents and purposes, is dead. “A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page.” Then she shows signs of life. “Is it a miracle?” It is “as if they had told a tale of a fairy princess and finished it only to find her sitting in a corner of the room listening.”
The girl is later claimed by no less than three different families:
Bess and Robert Armstrong, farmers from Kelmscott, believe she is their grandchild Alice, the daughter of their son Robin.
At Buscot, Helena and Anthony Vaughan mourn the disappearance of her daughter Amelia two years earlier. Can this be her?
And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, claims the child is her sister Ann, who died many years ago. How can this be so?
But they’re not the only ones who want her. Innkeeper Margot, who already has thirteen children, wants to keep her. Henry Daunt, the photographer who rescues the girl, feels she is the daughter he wishes he’d had from his failed marriage. Even Rita Sunday, the nurse who never wanted to have a child, wishes she were hers. And then there’s Mr. Quietly, the ghostly ferryman whose daughter drowned in the river. The girl herself does not speak and seems perfectly content with whoever takes her. But she has an endless fascination with the river. Who is she really?
The narrator speaks to us directly, involving us in the narrative:
“That photograph, do you remember?”
“And now, dear reader, the story is over.”
The main story detours into rich backstories which we think are irrelevant but which all tie together masterfully. We are introduced to an array of characters whose stories are woven into the original narrative via the river, as these scenes take place along tributaries of the Thames. The ever-present river is anthropomorphized and becomes a character in its own right:
“The water, bright and cold and fast-running, hissed as it passed. At irregular intervals it spat …”
“… in the background, the breath of the river, an endless exhalation.”
“… she gazed into the darkness and listened to the sound of the river as it rushed by.”
The book contains great descriptive passages:
“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.”
“Outside, the cold sliced through her coat without resistance and sharpened its blade against her skin, but she scarcely noticed.”
The author’s simple, yet powerful prose allows us to see things in a whole new light:
“Rita Sunday was not afraid of corpses. She was used to them from childhood, had even been born from one.”
“Drowning is easy. Every year the river helps herself to a few lives.”
“They were collectors of words, […] They kept an ear constantly alert for them, the rare, the unusual, the unique.”
“She walked through the warm steam of her own exhalation, felt it lay itself as wetness on her face.”
“His head was alive with ideas and he walked rapidly to deposit them with the person who would surely want to know all about it.”
“When they had married, Robin was already on the way, put into her womb by another man.”
“… his words reached their target and hurt as his fists could never have done …”
She uses imaginative similes; for example, describing how stories change in the re-telling: “It was like a living thing that he had caught but not trained; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s.”
And watery metaphors:
“It had seemed then that her daughter’s absence had flooded Helena, flooded them both, and that with their words they were trying to bail themselves out. But the words were eggcups and what they were describing was an ocean of absence, too vast to be contained in such modest vessels.”
“The throng thickened to stagnation and he was obliged to stop altogether, then he found a sluggish current and inched forward again.”
And her description of the river’s path to the ocean, including a poetic description of the water cycle, is pure genius:
“… the river water clings to the  leaves of the willows that droop to touch its surface, and then when the sun comes up a droplet appears to vanish into the air, where it travels invisibly and might join a cloud, a vast floating lake, until it falls again as rain. This is the unmappable journey of the Thames.”
Just like the storytellers at the Swan, the author’s storytelling is so engaging that I didn’t want to put the book down, and I didn’t want it to end. The author’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so glad this one didn’t disappoint.
Warnings: mild sex scene, suicide, violence.

Some of My Favorite Lines
“Just ’cause a thing’s impossible, don’t mean it can’t happen.”
“… between the worlds of the living and the dead, between reality and a story.”
“He knew his camera could not capture this, that some things were only truly seen by a human eye. This was one of the images of his lifetime. He simply exposed his retina and let love burn her flickering, shimmering, absorbed face on to his soul.”
“… the river was too vast a thing to be contained in any book.”

About the Author
Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Published in 38 countries, it has sold more than 3 million copies and was made into a television drama scripted by Christopher Hampton, starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave. Her second novel was Bellman & Black, and her third novel is Once Upon a River. Born in rural Berkshire, she now lives in Oxford, by the Thames.


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