The Knackered Parents' Book Club reviews 'Once Upon a River' by Diane Setterfield.


Hello everybody. It is January and I am cold and fed up with the rain and the lack of sun. January is officially the most depressing month of the year, but I read recently that January is actually the DOOR to the year. It is named after the Greek God Janus, who represents all beginnings and possesses the ability to see all things past and future. This made me feel slightly more hopeful, but I have a real sense at the moment of the rapid passage of time. How has another year gone by? I’m not ready to be a thirty-six year old woman with three children and yet here I am. Does the passing of time mean loss or is there hope in life moving forward?


This question brings us to our latest book at The Knackered Parents’ Book Club; ‘Once Upon A River’ by Diane Setterfield. The river and the power of nature runs throughout the book as a metaphor for the irreversible passage of time but also for fertility and the hope of new life. The story starts at The Swan at Radcott. An ancient inn where people told stories. The river is personified, “the bridge was drowned black.” It is turned into a dangerous and aggressive predator, watching and ever present. It is described as “shifting and undulating”, “darkly illuminated by some energy of its own making.” The natural world creates an ominous atmosphere, there is a sense of some unnatural power at work setting the scene for what is to come.


Setterfield draws the reader into the nighttime world by the river. She speaks to us directly as she tells the story of what the story tellers at the Swan witnessed that night. When a badly injured man walks in, carrying what they think is a puppet, they wonder, “Was it a monster from a folktale? Were they sleeping and was this a nightmare?” The lines between reality and story are blurred. The puppet turns out to be a little girl, who seemingly comes back from the dead. The characters and the reader have to question what is real and what isn’t. Three little girls have gone missing. Who is this girl who has been pulled out of the river?


The loss of a child hangs heavily over many of the characters. The Vaughan’s daughter was taken from their house two years before the start of this story. Mr Vaughan talks of their grief. “It had seemed then that her daughter’s absence had flooded Helena, flooded them both, and that with their words they were trying to bail themselves out. But the words were eggcups and what they were describing was an ocean of absence, too vast to be contained in such modest vessels.” I found this description of their loss so beautifully written. Setterfield again uses water imagery to help the reader to visualise the enormity of their pain.


Water connects all the characters. The river being both a cruel taker of life and a benevolent protector. Helena Vaughan’s aunt Eliza told her of a goblin who dragged children into the river if they got too close. The locals talk of a mysterious boatman called Quietly, who takes people in trouble on the river to safety, or if their time has come, to 'the other side of the river.' The child at the Swan was delivered by the river and Daunt seems to have been protected by it. Contrastingly, at Basketman’s cottage the river takes on a more sinister form. Lily fears what will come from it, “With its next breath, the river exhaled a child. She floated into the cottage, glaucous and cold. Fear put a choking whimper in Lily’s throat.” Lily’s nightmares come from her belief that she drowned her sister. Could the river act as a mirror, reflecting the fears, hopes and maybe soul of the person looking in? There is a biblical quality to this passage; the act of walking into the river could be seen as a purging of sins. “Without thought, without fear, Lily launched forwards. Her fingers closed on the pink limb.” Lily wades into the flood water, she is baptised and the fear that has consumed her disappears.


We are left with a sense of hope. Life has been lost, but new life is coming. Rita seems to have confronted her fear of childbirth. “Beneath their hands, in the damp vessels of her abdomen, life was swimming urgently upstream.” The Vaughan’s are expecting a new baby. The Armstrong’s find Alice. Just as the river moves forever forward, the cycle of life is also unstoppable.


Once Upon a River is a beautiful read. A novel that takes the reader to dark places but ultimately guides us to the light.

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