Book Review: ONCE UPON A RIVER, a witty and suspenseful commentary on storytelling

On winter solstice, a severely injured man, presumably from a boat wreck, stumbled into the Swan, an inn renowned for storytelling, carrying a bundle. Once over the threshold, the man whom no one recognized passed out. The son of the landlady caught the bundle. At first, he thought it was a doll, but soon it was clear the boy was holding not a doll but a dead girl of around four. After the local nurse, Rita, tended to the stranger, she visited the girl’s body in the storeroom. Everyone had a sense of déjà vu when Rita came back into the winter drinking room cradling the girl—who was now alive.

Three local families lay claim to the girl who is mute from the trauma. Anthony and Helen Vaughn, wealthy landowners, believe the girl is their daughter Amelia who was kidnapped two years ago when she was two. Robert and Bess Armstrong just learned their son Robin had a four-year-old daughter, Alice, and they thought the girl from the river was the granddaughter they’d never met. Lily White, maid for the parson, insisted the girl was her sister, even though the math didn’t quite add up.

Once Upon a River has the suspenseful pacing of a mystery as the secrets of the three family’s are slowly uncovered to reveal the truth of the river girl’s true identity. As expected from the title, the novel draws from fairy tales, placing it within the realm of magical realism. Setterfield inventively uses the novel to comment on the process of storytelling, and her observations are not only insightful, they are also witty. Henry Daunt, a photographer, provides a counterpoint with his visual memory.

Given the large number of characters, it’s impossible to expect that they all have the same level of development. Robert and Bess Armstrong and Rita Sunday were intriguing and complex characters with interesting backstories. I was also very fascinated by Daunt and the Vaughns and would have liked to know even more about them.

While Once Upon a River feels like it’s set out of time, the river of the title is the Thames, and it references Oxford and London. Characters travel by train and also mock the recently published On the Origin of Species (1859), so it seems possible the novel could take place in the 1860s.

This book is beautifully written and usual though the mystery framing it gives it a familiar structure. I definitely recommend it for readers who enjoy literary fiction and / or magical realism.