“ Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.”
Having loved The Thirteenth Tale I had quite high expectations for Once Upon a River. While this novel is a bit of a departure from The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores similar themes.
The act/art of storytelling plays a huge role in Once Upon a River, and I would go as far as to say that storytelling is the real protagonist of this novel. From its title and its very first pages, the novel addresses the importance of storytelling. The narration feels as belonging to a teller of tales. The way in which certain things are revealed to the reader and the careful rhythm created by stressing certain words or phrases really echoes that of a fairy tale or folktale.
This novel is a homage to these types of tales, conjuring up lore whilst remaining faithful to its own story. Once Upon a River is a modern addition to a long beloved tradition and it provides readers with a more expressive and eloquent tale.
This novel is a bit of a slow burn. To start with, I didn’t know that it was going to be an actual ‘tale’, so I wasn’t sure of the direction of the narrative. I wondered at the large cast of characters, the to-and-fro between them, and the seemingly trivial details that take up so much of the narrative…and then, before I begun to realise it, I found myself completely absorbed by the world and the characters depicted by Setterfield. The little girl herself doesn’t have a voice as such
, which was a bit of a pity, and the novel seems to focus on the parents rather than the children. Nevertheless, there are many lovely and moving scenes between various family members, especially between husbands and wives.
My only issue in regards of these characters is that although the main characters felt nuanced, the ‘bad guys’ of the story are merely ‘villains’ and are to blame for all the horrible and or sad things that happe
n within the narrative. The novel seemed rather simplistic in its portrayal of good vs. bad. We get very few glimpses of the thoughts and motivations of the ‘bad guys’ and by the end it seemed a bit too easy to make them in such villainous figures. I know that fairy tales have such ‘bad’ figures but still, given that Setterfield has created a more complex sort of tale, I was hoping that all of the characters would be given the same sort of attention.
There are a lot of small mysteries peppered throughout the narrative. Some might be easy to guess but it is the way in which the narrative reveals these ‘mysteries’ that makes them worth having. I was fascinated by the gossip and rumours surrounding the little girl, and it was interesting to see what various characters believed to be the truth:
Overall, I enjoyed it. It might be slow going at first but as the characters and their lives take shape, and lulled by the wistful and spellbinding narrative, I soon realised that Once Upon a River is not only a tale worth reading but a tale worth revisiting.