The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is on my list of All Time Favorite Books, so I was thrilled when I saw that she had published a new novel.
Once Upon A River is a story about a small community along a river. But not just any river, the Thames.
One cold winter evening at the Swan, an ancient inn known for its storytelling, the door swings open to reveal a severely injured man, carrying a dead little girl. However, the little girl turns out to not be dead when the local nurse/midwife, Rita, checks on her after attending to the injured man.
Thus begins an enchanting story of this not-dead little girl and the question of who she is.
Two families, the Vaughns and the Armstrongs – come to claim her. The Vaughn’s daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped several years earlier and Mrs. Vaughn is desperate to claim this little girl as her lost daughter. The wayward eldest Armstrong son fathered a little girl named Alice, but hasn’t seen her in over a year. Her mother is found dead and Alice is missing and the Armstrongs want to do the right thing for this little girl. There is also a woman, Lucy, who believes the little girl is her sister, Ann, but is dismissed because her sister would no longer be a little girl.
Once Upon a River is part historical fiction, part supernatural tale. But what resonated most with me was that underlying it all it was the story of what happens when people experience loss and trauma and how they try to adapt.
At one point, Mr. Vaughn visits Mrs. Constantine, a woman who it is told can help resolve issues – which he thinks of as mumbo jumbo and sorcery. But later, he goes back to her and talks about the loss of his daughter and realizes that is not all smoke and mirrors and trickery, but that in the telling of his story he feels relief.
Mrs. Constantine responds, “death and memory are meant to work together. Sometimes something gets stuck and then people need a guide or companion in grief.” Mrs. Constantine and her husband had been in America studying a “new science” – the science of human emotion (she’s a therapist!).
In the end, the negative forces at work in the kidnapping of Amelia, the death of Alice’s mother and what happened to Ann and Lucy are explained and it appears that the stories of the supernatural were inflated. However, there is still the question of who this little girl was and what exactly happened to her.
There were several characters in this novel that I loved and that I would love to visit again. I particularly enjoy how Setterfield reveals each character’s backstory slowly and deliberately. She also expertly creates the river as the largest character of the novel. So while I didn’t initially feel as enthusiastic about this novel as I did the Thirteenth Tale, in the end I think it was just as good.