Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.
Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.
I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.
“I’m afraid they’re going to suffer some devastating fall or come to a tragic end,” I messaged my aunt.
“Keep reading,” she wrote back.
Despite lingering misgivings, I did. I was not disappointed. Quite the opposite. Once Upon a River has leapt into the ranks of my all-time favorites.
Like the patrons gathered about the hearth at the Swan at Radcot, Setterfield is a master storyteller. This is no thriller that harries us from one heart-stopping scene to the next. Though the plot encompasses more than a year in the life of the town, Setterfield lingers over the first evening for a full sixty (out of 460) pages. Like the river, the story is in no hurry to arrive at its destination, and we are content to drift on the current of Setterfield’s lyrical prose (and actress Julia Stevenson’s mellifluous voice, if you’re listening to the audiobook).
The book’s opening paragraph invokes a cohesive community. The Swan is known for—what else?—storytelling. Radcot is a town like most others, where rumors morph and muddle as they pass from mouth to mouth. A town inhabited by rich and poor, villains and vicars, secrets and sickness. And a town that pulls together in tragedy, that ultimately enfolds the marginalized, and that accepts miracles and mystery and ponders them long and late into the night.
The abundance of good-hearted, down-to-earth characters accounts for a large portion of the book’s charm. Early on, in the middle of the longest night of the year, Radcot’s parson receives a youthful visitor, aglow with news that a child has been resurrected at the Swan, “like Jesus all over again.”
The sleepy, middle-aged cleric, though he has witnessed few miracles, concedes the inescapable parallels. He proceeds to make his young guest comfortable in a chair, hoping his abandoned bed still retains “a parson-shaped bit of warmth,” and prays as he returns to it, “Let the child—if there is a child—be all right. … And let it soon be spring.”
Admirable fathers figure prominently in the cast. They love their wives and sacrifice for their children. Yeoman Robert Armstrong is the consummate father of the prodigal son, not merely watching for but pursuing the rebellious child who is, incidentally, not his biological offspring.
[Spoiler alert: plot revelation ahead.] In fact, the fate of Armstrong’s son Robin raises some philosophical questions for me. Is Robin doomed, as his biological father maintains, to follow in the footsteps of his villainous procreator? The novel, with its undercurrent of evolution, is fertile ground for a discussion of nature versus nurture. What do Robin’s final words (“Save me, Father!”) and actions suggest about his true nature? Is he guilty of parricide or a vehicle of justice? I prefer to interpret Robin’s demise as a requirement of the just world established by the novel, rather than a statement about genetics and the possibility of redemption, but other interpretations remain open to the reader.
Once Upon a River’s satisfying conclusion, in which the good prosper, the evil receive their just desserts, and the outcasts are drawn into community, is not untouched by sadness. But the author has prepared us for the losses. And we have faith that the inhabitants of Radcot will band together and carry on.
For more on the mystery and magic in Setterfield’s work, check back next week for Once Upon a River, Part II, or, Reading in the Dark Season.