Once Upon A River is a curious book. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, it has a mix of both the old and modern that comes with the fin de siécle: a rural setting helps with creating the idea of a world with unseen layers but with photography having a central role in the story as an example, the book contains the essence of the past and the present and all of the wonders that they both hold.
My description “curious” suggests that I am puzzled by it but it is merely that it had an original quality to it that surprised me. I like books which suggest the otherworldly and Setterfield does this easily, intertwining the mythical and the modern into a tale which like the river Thames, so central to the story, twists and turns, leading us this way and that, and we follow it, like the water, as it takes us on whatever path it has chosen, its swirling depths disguising secrets and mysteries that we can guess at. We have them revealed to us by Setterfield but those of the river will remain hidden – unless the river claims us for its own.
And that is what you get in this book: a river which also feels like it has more of a presence than just a naturally occurring phenomenon. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it has a character but it is a dominating presence in the book, mysterious, ever-present with a will of its own.
But there is obviously much more than just the river. There are characters galore and these are well-drawn, from the grief-stricken to the nasty; the healers and the downtrodden; the families and the workers. I had a clear idea of who everyone was and there is a great mixture of folk here. Dialogue feels natural and the plot unfolds expertly. I think, in fact, that the way that Setterfield reveals the truth is done masterfully.
As there are a lot of characters, I found that the book was a little slow to start as the fabric on which the story rested was laid out but once this was done, it all fell into place and I sped through the rest of it and it was highly enjoyable.
No doubt in my mind that I will read more by Diane Setterfield.