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Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Doubleday, 2018

Having enjoyed Diane Setterfield’s hugely successful debut The Thirteenth Tale back in 2006 (subsequently adapted by Christopher Hampton for Heyday Films and screened in 2013), I was keen to dive into her latest – but had been saving it for the dark winter’s nights by the fire for which it calls. Spending winter lockdown marooned in a country cottage proved to be the perfect opportunity.

Set along the banks of the Thames in Victorian Oxfordshire, Once Upon a River takes place over the course of a year, beginning and ending at the winter solstice. This is the tale of a girl rescued from the river by Henry Daunt, a photographer who not only photographs the Thames but lives on it, in a houseboat which also serves as his darkroom. The girl is apparently drowned – but, she comes back to life. During the course of the novel, we experience the ups and downs of three different families who have lost a girl of a similar age, though ultimately none has a claim on her. A year later, through the course of events, the girl is returned to the river, her identity deliberately left unclear.

The story draws on the river as a metaphor for the ebb, flow, and sometimes overflow that is the story of human lives; interweaved inextricably with each other as we are, and ultimately subject to a fate bigger than ourselves. The lynchpin of the community is the Swan Inn, famous for the skill of its resident storytellers, and the mysterious girl becomes at once everyone’s and no-one’s story. I love this quote:

“They might have let it drop. They might have given it up as one of those tales that comes from nowhere and has nowhere to go. But at the end of sentences and between words, when voices tailed off and conversations halted, in the profound lull that lies behind all storytelling, there floated the girl herself... unknowable, ungraspable, inexplicable, still one thing was plain: she was their story.”

Compellingly atmospheric stuff. However, as I read more about Henry, the novel took on an extra significance. Five years ago, my partner and I picked up an intriguing pocket guide to the Thames dated 1877 in a second-hand bookshop in Osterley. It seemed that there might be a connection, so I looked it out – sure enough, Taunt’s Map and Guide to the Thames by one Henry Taunt, a photographer who also used his houseboat as a darkroom. Setterfield acknowledges the inspiration in her author’s note at the end. Here it is:

So for me this wasn’t just a wonderfully mystical evocation of the intertwined lives of a small community at the mercy of the natural world – and by extension, the story of our own lives. It also showed the interconnectedness of stories through books across the ages, adding new value to the 1877 volume – on top of the pencil notes of previous owners, the name of one of them, a ripped-out page from a publisher’s catalogue and the receipt we had kept showing when and where we had bought the book.

Just as our lives are linked with the world around us, our own stories are integral to the books we buy and read; not just in terms of the contents, but in the books as objects in themselves, transitioning from owner to owner and taking on new significance through time.

This was a nice segue. I’d highly recommend getting stuck into Once Upon a River whilst the evenings are still dark – and a walk along T/Daunt’s Thames when they get lighter.

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