Like Setterfield’s previous novels The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black, Once Upon a River presents a tale that is a blend of history, mystery, and magic realism (or perhaps mythology or folklore). The River Thames, winding through English countryside and past an inn called the Swan, is at the centre of this novel, as much a character as the vividly realized cast of human beings who are all touched by the river in some way.
One night at the Swan, a mysterious, badly injured stranger enters the inn, carrying what everyone takes to be a life-sized doll or figure of some kind. In fact, it is a dead, but strangely unreal, little girl — who then comes back to life, just as mysteriously as she has shown up dead. Both she and the man who carried her into the inn have come out of the river, but nobody knows for sure how they got there. And it turns out that two families in the area — two fascinating, utterly believable families — are missing little girls of about this age. For complex plot reasons I won’t get into (read the book!) nobody from either family is able to immediately identify the little girl, so both families believe she could plausibly be their missing child.
Who is the little girl? Where did she come from? To which family does she belong? All these questions are explored as the girl’s fate winds, like the river, through the loosely connected lives of a large group of characters who live along its shores. The eventual conclusion of the story is absolutely rational and believable — while, at the same time, having more than a hint of mystery, myth and magic. Though we are living in the Victorian era where a village nurse carries out scientific experiments to try to understand why a child who was submerged in cold water might appear dead, we are reminded that there are some things reason can never fully account for.
This is a lovely, haunting, thoroughly enjoyable fairy tale.