Diane Setterfield’s third novel, Once Upon a River, begins with a dramatic event at an old Oxfordshire inn on the Thames during the evening of a winter's solstice in the nineteenth century.
A badly injured man enters, interrupting the storytelling of the regulars. He is carrying the drowned body of a small girl and then passes out. Nurse and midwife Rita, who attends to them both, is shocked when a few hours later the child starts to breathe but can’t speak. When the injured man eventually recovers he explains that he found the little girl floating in the river.
The unnamed narrator is the collective voice of the villagers, each unable to talk about anything else and giving their theories of this macabre event.
So who is the child? The first claim comes from a wealthy mixed race farmer who believes she is his granddaughter, fathered by his problem stepson. The second claim is made by a couple whose marriage is fragile following the kidnapping of their two-year-old daughter a few years before. The third is from the parson’s nervous housekeeper who claims the child is her long-dead drowned sister brought back to life.
At the centre of this atmospheric Gothic story, full of mystery, suspense and romance, is the river. I loved it so much that I am now reading the author’s 2016 bestselling debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, which was made into a television drama starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave.
Reviewed by Roz Masters