Title: Once Upon A River
Writer: Diane Setterfield
Publishing House: Penguin Random House UK
Date of Publication: January 24th 2019 (first published December 4th 2018)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it, crate it up and send it to the towns in 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?’’
Diane Setterfield has already written one of the most intriguing, haunting novels of our times. The Thirteenth Tale is the beautifully strange love-child of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, its Gothic atmosphere and the dialogue faithful to the vision of an extremely gifted writer. Once Upon A River is even better. No, it is infinitely better and you know how much I loved The Thirteenth Tale. In fact, it is already a member of The Best Books of 2019 squad.
‘’Dead they took her from the river and now she lives again.’’
It is a dark night in the heart of winter. In the Swann, an inn by the Thames, the usual customers have gathered to wash away the day’s toil with a tankard of ale and haunting stories of ghosts and restless deeds. The door open as suddenly as the burst of the wind. A man staggers inside, carrying a girl in his arms. But the little one is dead. Frozen and still. And a few hours later, she is alive again, a female Lazarus that leaves everyone in awe. Who is she? How did she come to be there? Who are her parents? An entire community begins a frantic search for the child’s past. In doing so, other secrets come to surface, buried feelings and aspirations and the ones involved come to realise the past is always one step ahead of all of us.
‘’Something is going to happen.’’
It is extremely difficult to write about this novel. Not because of potential spoilers, a word that has no meaning here, but because of the intricacy and the writing that is eloquent, lovely, haunting like a dark landscape immortalized in a painting. It is a novel that one must read in order to understand the beauty of it. The striking first chapters and the narration that chronicles the premonitions of the characters will become one of the most impressive literary moments you’ll ever experience. Diane Setterfield uses motifs and symbols beloved in British Gothic Literature, like the inn and the river. The inn where secrets are created and disclosed, the river as a source of life and continuation, as a threat and a mysterious destination. We are all aware of myths and beliefs associated with the communities developed close to rivers and here they are put in excellent use.
‘’She stares up – and downriver, in search of something. Something she longs for. Something she has been expecting every day, and every day it doesn’t come, and still she waits and still she looks and still she yearns, but the hope dwindles with every day that passes. Now she waits hopelessly.’’
How beautifully the scents and the sounds are depicted in this novel… ‘’The fragrance of nutmeg and allspice mingled with tobacco and burning logs, and the smell of the river receded.’’ The winter darkness and the anticipation of the summer solstice, the change of the seasons, the change of our wishes. But does human nature ever change? This is something that myths like the one of the Changeling and the haunting story of Quietly and his family try to explain. Photography also acquires a special function in the story because if we come to think of it, it is a supernatural form of Art. Having an image of ours that will outlive us and will never fade must have seemed monumental at the time and even now, we desire to immortalize our finest moments, our loved ones, all the beautiful places we visit.
I would be negligent if I didn’t mention what I felt to be the most important theme in this beautiful book. Parenthood. The unimaginable pain of losing your child, the false hopes, the fear and suffering that are ever-present during the birth of a child, the need for an offspring that exists in most people. Setterfield creates a marriage between everyday themes, haunting settings, and a peculiar, eerie story and the writing reaches perfection. What does it mean ‘’slow book’’ or ‘’fast book’’? Most of the times, characterizations such as these mean nothing. We have ‘’good’’ books and ‘’bad’’ books. Quality book and books- junk that I wouldn’t gift to my enemy. Once Upon A River is one-of-a-kind. The dialogue is outstanding, exceptional. So faithful it is that you will immediately feel transported to the 19th century, mingling with nobility and ordinary people who love to sit in a dimly lit inn. Rita and Henry Daunt are marvelous (…and I might have fallen in love with Mr. Daunt a little too much…) Margot, Mr. Armstrong, so many interesting characters that will keep you a fine company.
I could say that this novel could have been the child of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and every favourite Victorian writer of ours. But this would be an injustice to Diane Setterfield, an outstanding writer that doesn’t need comparisons. She is already one of Britain’s greats and I am certain that she will remain so for a long time. Once Upon A River and The Thirteenth Tale are classics in the making.
This is how Historical Fiction is done to absolute perfection.
‘’It was solstice night, the longest night of the years. For weeks the days have 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 of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eye 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.’’
Many thanks to Penguin Random House UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.