A folktale or a mystery? Magical fantasy or a ghost story? Once Upon a River will carry you away....
Once Upon a River, Diane Setterfield
Published 2018, 464 pages
"A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page."
Setterfield is a terrific storyteller. (Did you happen to read The Thirteenth Tale?) This one reads like a fable or fairy tale told to you by your grandma..... As I struggled to find words to describe this book to my husband, I found I was using my hands more than my words. Soothing, calm, placid, smooth. Those words all make the book sound boring - it's definitely not! It's a masterful way of using words to tell a story and yet not rely on shock and violence to do it. There's not much "action" and yet I was eager to turn every page.
"They sat on the riverbank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next."
Ostensibly it's a story of a lost little girl who is found, but whose little girl is she? I feel like it's really loss and how a small community reacts; it's about how a community is tied to the land (and river) and the stories that come to life over the years. The community regularly meets in the local tavern to tell tales - it's kind of a tradition, but a game of one-upmanship to tell the best story of the recent local events. I loved these sections as the characters would strive to make sense of what was happening by telling a tale.
"It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings.”
The book is full of likable characters including a pig (and a couple not-so-much), a little heartbreak, a touch of evil, lots of love, a bit of a mystery, and even a bit of mysticism, all told in a gentle, calm, lyrical way. I felt carried along by the river that is at the heart of this story.
photos by Terrie Purkey, Oregon landscape, London pub interior