This is a book about storytelling, its mysteries and traps. The disparate characters are linked by their relationship to the river and to the stories told of Alice/Amelia... A story, no matter how cleverly it is structured, lives or dies on the vividness of its characters. Setterfield, a true storyteller, makes us care about all her players in this beguiling novel.
On a dark winter night, at an inn along the Thames, a group of locals have gathered to share stories when a far more curious tale staggers in right through the doors. The man who appears is dripping wet and bleeding profuself, but most peculiarly of all, he is carrying the body of a young girl - a child all those present agree is dead... until she opens her eyes. Brimming with folklore, intrigue and romance, this is a story to savour.
While the first third meanders and often had this reader wondering where it was going and what the point of it all might be, it does accumulate enough emotional power to make the revelations that finally come genuinely moving. In spots, the prose could use some polish (Armstrong is described as “weighed down by the intolerable weight of his grief” at one point), but originality has never been Setterfield’s strong suit. She serves you bread and cheese, but it is very good bread and cheese, the sort of meal that is often more satisfying than fancier stuff. Once Upon a River is a hearty paean to the Thames and the people who live on or near it, whose stories never truly begin or end, but flow on for ever, to a dimly imagined sea.
As with most tales set at this period (around the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species), Once Upon a River is concerned with the borderline between science and magic. Changelings, underwater goblins, mermaids and ghosts are credited with causing unexplained events, making this novel feel far enough removed from real life to be a comforting read.
Setterfield is a master of the medium. Like the river at its core, her plot twists and turns with ease and confidence, and her writing is beautiful.The story she tells — and which her characters retell — is as vivid as the old folktales and real histories that inform it.
Setterfield has written a satisfying, thickly characterised tale that plunges you into an evocatively realised historical setting. You care for its characters, though not for all of Setterfield’s authorial interjections. Several chapters end with people concluding: “Something is going to happen.” Chapter headings such as What Happened Next or The Story Flourishes also irritate.
Is it possible for a novel to be a classic despite obvious flaws? The closing chapters feel gimmicky, the denouement wildly melodramatic — but then Setterfield swoops in with a final, breathtaking paragraph, shimmering with ancient dread and magic. Once Upon A River’s winding course drags you down into the reeds and marshy depths in places, but Setterfield’s imagination is powered by an otherworldly force. This riverine novel has the mood and feel of a ghost story told late into the night, and will win over readers who enjoy a touch of age-old enchantment.
Once Upon a River is a story of loss, and how the missing keep living inside of us. Setterfield describes grief at times with dazzling beauty... This is a long novel, at times slightly hard to follow, and readers might have to flip back through earlier chapters in order to understand every detail. But Setterfield (who has a PhD in French literature from the University of Bristol) knows how to make the words sing. It is worth taking a journey down the Thames with her.