The story begins on a dark winter solstice night when “the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds”. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is a tale which is part mystery, part ghost story, part folklore, it is slow to start, sometimes sluggish and meanders all over like the river on the banks of which it is set.
A country Inn on the banks of the Thames in the late nineteenth century draws people for the stories and folklore recounted by the proprietresses husband. The one story that particularly fascinates locals and visitors alike is that of the ghostly boatman who either helps those in trouble upon the river and will see them to the shore or, depending on whether their time has come, he helps deliver them across to the ‘other’ shore, Charon like.
The mystery in the story begins with the badly injured and drenched stranger who, on solstice night suddenly appears at the inn with a seemingly dead little girl in his arms and collapses. No one can explain how the child later comes alive and to whom she belongs. Initially people at the inn think she is the daughter of the man who brought her in but then it turns out he is a photographer from Oxford who only found the girl in the river. She herself, cannot speak and is unable to say who she is. There is something mesmerising about the child that those who come in contact with her either want to take care of her or fondly think of their own children and want to go home and hold them. There are many, indeed, who want to claim the child and the story goes back and forth between the claimants.
The river as a setting is varied in all its moods and for the locals it’s moods are an ever present reality. Diane Setterfield’s descriptions are evocative of this and give a mystic quality to the Thames which is as much a character in the book as the numerous other characters. However, like the river, we felt the tale meanders a tad too much. Possibly intentionally, in keeping with the ebb and flow of the Thames, but for the reader it becomes tiresome.
We also could not decide whose story Setterfield really wanted to tell. As the book veers from the inn, its inhabitants and customers, to the photographer who had found the child, the nurse who treats her and the various individuals and families who lay a claim to the little girl and includes all their back stories, the reader wonders where it is all going. The girl’s mystery slowly becomes a part of the folklore and legend on the river but she remains a hazy character. The realisation comes very late for the reader, that the girl is not the protagonist of the book but only the means by which everyone else’s story is told. After meandering through the myriad different aspects of the story, Setterfield abandons the reader to flounder midstream wondering where the tale has taken them.