Monday, 11 February 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

"This is a very accomplished novel filled with fascinating characters that are multi-layered and are never quite what they seem. "


Historical Fantasy/ Fairy Tales

Once Upon A River is an adult fairy story set along the banks of the Thames from Oxford east towards Buscot. The scene is set in the Swan Inn in Radcot where the locals take enormous pride in being talented storytellers, and take great delight in telling stories in myriad ways, and in helping their fellows with their use of language and description. So far so genteel, but as with all good fairy stories, darkness is never far away, and the shadow of evil enters the inn in the form of a man, drenched, carrying the lifeless body of a child.

This is a very accomplished novel filled with fascinating characters that are multi-layered and are never quite what they seem. All of them have a story to tell, and as we progress through the events of the novel, they tell them, some with great enthusiasm, others with equal reluctance. In the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen, there is not always a happy ending for everyone and disaster and evil are never far away.

And yet it is not so dark that one leaves the novel disheartened. Very much the moral of the story is that good things will happen if good people put themselves forward. 

Is this novel fantasy or history? It is a bit of both. We learn a great deal of the workings of early photography, and yet it is unashamedly a fantasy with ghosts, apparitions and strange happenings, people who may or may not exist and a river that may also not be real.

The only drawback to this marvellously written novel is that it is very long.  I found that I wanted to read to the end because I couldn't see how it was going to conclude, but it took a long time. Was it worth it? Yes, it was, because the last twenty percent of the novel is where it really comes alive and answers are revealed to questions that have confounded the riverside communities. Persevere, it is worth it, but set aside around ten hours for it.

© Nicky Galliers

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