Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, August 13, 2018

Monday, August 13, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Once Upon a River

Atria Books: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Atria Books: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Atria Books: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield

A story with a fairytale title like Once Upon a River promises to transport readers to another place and time, and New York Times bestselling author Diane Setterfield doesn't disappoint. In her third novel, Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale) embarks on a fantastical journey, one with an abundance of magic and mystery.

"As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. 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 and goings, and the past and present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."  

Setterfield's lyrical prose leads readers to the Swan at Radcot, an inn along the Thames River where, in 1887, villagers gather in the evenings to drink and tell stories. Well-worn folktales and legends known by heart are embellished for dramatic effect and generously shared among strangers and kin alike. Everyone knows, for example, about the river gypsies on the Thames and the eternal bargain they struck with Quietly, a mute ferryman whose daughter died in a river accident. In exchange for Quietly's perpetual vigilance as the river's watchman, protector and guide, his daughter was returned safe and sound.

On the night of the winter solstice, a grotesquely battered and bloodied stranger bursts into the Swan. ("Was it a monster from a folktale? Were they sleeping and this was a nightmare?") Adding to the scene's macabre quality: the man is holding the lifeless body of a young girl, initially thought by the stunned spectators to be a large puppet. Astonishingly, inexplicably, the child turns out to be very much alive.

The mysterious circumstances that caused the child to be found in the Thames River become the subject of much speculation among the Swan's frequent storytellers and drinkers. They learn that the stranger is Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford who specializes in river scenes. But the identity of the child, who appears to be about four years old and who doesn't speak, remains unknown.

As the story of the mysterious event at the Swan travels from person to person, several people descend on the inn. Rita Sunday, a nurse, cares for Henry and the girl after their trauma on the river. A middle-aged woman named Lily White insists that the toddler is her younger sister, Ann--despite their apparent age difference of three decades. When Bess and Robert Armstrong learn about the girl, they believe she could be Alice, their granddaughter and a link to their estranged son, Robin. Or perhaps she is Amelia, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan's daughter, who was kidnapped from her bedroom two years prior and hasn't been seen since.

Several of these possibilities are quickly disregarded by the characters because of their inherent individual and collective assumptions. Throughout Once Upon a River, Setterfield challenges her readers not to make the same mistake, to suspend any long-held beliefs and look beyond the seemingly impossible. Though the story is set in the late 19th century, Setterfield's characters and their prejudices are recognizable today. Take the Armstrongs: Bess walks with a limp and is the target of familiar misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities. Her husband, Robert, also experiences discrimination and injustice: "The blackness of his skin made him the outsider, and his height and strength that would have been an advantage to any white man only made people more wary.... As often as not, people reserved their curtness for people who were, like him, unfamiliar. Difference was upsetting, and people armed themselves in aggression when they met it." 

Each character supports Setterfield's theme of souls capable of spanning time, and of porous borders between the known world and those in the past or future. Once Upon a River's mysterious atmosphere enhances the growing sense that, as inexplicable and distinct as their individual stories may seem, Lily White, the Armstrongs and the Vaughans must all be connected. Setterfield's approach to presenting each character's backstory evokes the Thames River's path and its tributaries, with each stream being part of a whole.

Her enchanting language, quaint setting and engaging characters make Once Upon a River a deeply satisfying, thought-provoking story reminiscent of the most beloved fairytales. It is a reminder of storytelling's importance and its ability to bond souls together despite individual differences and the passage of time. --Melissa Firman

Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $28, hardcover, 480p., 9780743298070, December 4, 2018

Atria Books: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield: The Eternal Flow of Story

photo: Susie Barker

British author Diane Setterfield has written three novels: The Thirteenth Tale, Bellman & Black and her newest, Once Upon a River. She studied French literature at the University of Bristol and taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing. Setterfield lives in Oxford by the Thames.

You describe yourself as "a reader first, a writer second." Did you have any specific literary influences in mind while writing Once Upon a River?

For this book, distant memories of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot were probably stirring in the deep recesses of my mind. The end is unforgettable--and the river figures very powerfully--but I only have hazy memories of the rest. I recently reread Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie and its account of rural life enchanted me just as it did when I read it at school. Akenfield, Ronald Blythe's poetic account of a lost rural life, also made an indelible impression. As for more contemporary influences, I read The Returned after meeting Jason Mott in Miami a few years ago and loved the way it presented the return of dead people as a simple given without explanation. That was a bold move on his part and neatly sidestepped the horror genre. I had something different in mind for Once Upon a River but his approach proved it was possible to write about such a thing without being scary. That was reassuring.

You've kept a reading diary for more than three decades. What inspired you to start recording each book you read?

It came about when I met someone at university who became one of my oldest and dearest friends. We discovered very quickly our shared love of reading. She told me that she had a list of every book she'd ever read since she was 10, and I immediately started my own list. That was in 1982, so I'm onto my third notebook now. It still irks me that she has an eight-year head start! Every year between Christmas and the new year I find a quiet moment to sit and browse the list of books I've read in the previous year, and I put a star next to the ones I've loved the most. Last year it was Tove Jansson's The Summer Book and Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World.

Storytelling is a key theme in Once Upon a River. In a world where we tell our stories in posts and tweets, do you feel there is still an appreciation for the art of storytelling?

Of course there is! We are human, and storytelling is deep-rooted in us. I think in one form or another it will last as long as our species does--and the fact that we tweet and post stories is evidence of its importance. As technologies evolve, the age-old craft of storytelling adapts. As a novelist I value the printed book enormously, but I am also the first to admit that the human need to find, tell and listen to stories is not dependent on any one medium. It existed in an oral tradition long before the invention of the printing press (and that tradition is still going strong in Once Upon a River). Later it found a visual language with the magic lantern (also seen in my new book) and later still with the advent of moving pictures in film and TV. The medium is just a vehicle and the real locus of the storytelling is that co-created space that exists somewhere between the mind of the teller and that of the reader/listener/viewer. A story is a shared mental and emotional event more than words or images on a page or on a screen.

Once Upon a River reads like a fairytale. Is that a genre you enjoy? Did you have a particular fairytale in mind as you were writing?

I love fairytales, yes. They are often our first stories and a fundamental part of culture. It's a mistake to think they belong to children--under the surface (and sometimes on the surface) they are dark, dangerous and very adult. I love reading new and old versions and have particularly enjoyed Angela Carter and Philip Pullman's retellings. For Once Upon a River, I think I had the classical myths in mind. Odysseus's voyage into the underworld to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice, was one of the key ones, as was Demeter's effort to rescue her daughter Persephone from Hades. I translated some themes from these myths into folk tales. In one, goblins snatch unwary children away to a dangerous place beneath the river. In another, a father pays dearly to rescue his daughter from the underworld.

You live by the Thames River, which in your novel at times feels personified. Did you intend to make the river a character?

Yes, most certainly. The story was influenced by a walk (years ago now) along the river path with my parents. The river was raging--I'd never seen it so wild or so high. We were forced to turn back. I was perfectly grown up, we weren't in serious danger, but I remember a very real tingle of fear. It was an acknowledgement of water's power and the powerlessness of human beings against it. Once we were away from the water's edge, my Mum told me about a drowning that took place at that spot. That was enough to get me started.

During the writing, the Thames exerted its power and I was drawn closer. Now my house is minutes away; if I was only a little taller I would be able to see the Thames from my upstairs windows.

How did writing Once Upon a River compare to the experience of writing The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black?

If only writing got easier! You would think it would, wouldn't you? Other things get easier--and quicker--with repetition. The trouble is, writing a new book always turns you back into a novice. Writing The Thirteenth Tale was no help at all in writing Bellman & Black, and Bellman & Black was no preparation for Once Upon a River. Each book is set in an entirely new world that must be conjured from scratch; each set of characters must be freshly drawn out of thin air. The fear of failure is the same each time. There are just as many difficulties to resolve and they seem just as insurmountable. The difference I suppose is that the third time through the process you can say to yourself on the bad days, "I felt like this before, and it all worked out in the end."

Maybe I'm underestimating the value of experience. I do know that I have a tool kit now that I lacked before. I'm better at diagnosing the difficulties. My early complaints were often variants on "I just don't know how to do it!" That vagueness has evolved into questions like, "Why am I nervous about writing this particular character?" and "What can I do to simplify this plot line?" Also, I am better at recognizing when sitting at my desk and pressing on will pay dividends and when I would do better to go to the river and let walking and my subconscious do the work for me. --Melissa Firman

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