Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield
Once Upon A River

I was totally gripped by this book and found it difficult to put down, which surprised me as I hadn’t suspected there would be this much drama and mystery in the book, I really really enjoyed reading it. There was also more sadness in this book than I thought there'd be at the start, the injustice and cruelty to some of the characters did tug at my heartstrings a lot. But what stood out for me most about the book was the author’s writing, as it is so descriptive and beautiful, romantic and a bit fairytale-like and magical, and quite old-fashioned and charming, I didn’t want the book to end, her writing just seemed to cast a spell on me and I felt like I was in another world and didn’t want to return to reality. This was one of my favourite books I’ve read recently, I absolutely loved it.

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

I was totally gripped by this book and found it difficult to put down, which surprised me as I hadn’t suspected there would be this much drama and mystery in the book, I really really enjoyed reading it. There was also more sadness in this book than I thought there’d be at the start, the injustice and cruelty to some of the characters did tug at my heartstrings a lot. But what stood out for me most about the book was the author’s writing, as it is so descriptive and beautiful, romantic and a bit fairytale-like and magical, and quite old-fashioned and charming, I didn’t want the book to end, her writing just seemed to cast a spell on me and I felt like I was in another world and didn’t want to return to reality. This was one of my favourite books I’ve read recently, I absolutely loved it.

I was wondering throughout the book if there were going to be real-life answers to things or if there would instead be a supernatural magical ‘answer’. I can’t remember now when the story is set, but I think it’s the late 1800s, early 1900s, it feels like it is that kind of time? There were so many stories running through the book, many of them quite tragic and all of them ending up linked, it reminded me of a Dickens’ book with how involved the stories were and how they all linked together. And there was so much happening all the way through, so much information given that raised more and more questions and made me speculate more and more, as can be seen with all my speculating below. 

One of the main stories was the identity of a child who was found drowned and apparently dead and no-one knew who she belonged to or where she came from, and she then surprised everyone by coming back to life after it seemed she was dead. The Vaughans claimed her as their missing child, Amelia. Robin stated she could be his child, Alice, making her Robert’s granddaughter. And Lily kept thinking she was her sister, Ann. Or was she none of these children and instead some kind of magical child, appearing in order to bring characters together and show them their path. And I wondered if it was relevant that all three children’s names began with A, I couldn’t think of any particular significance in this but it did seem strange their names all began with the letter A. I began to wonder if this strange magical child that came back from the dead was kind of sent to help the Vaughans heal, to bring love into their lives again, the child being with them allowing them to relax and get pregnant again, that maybe the child was sent for this purpose. And that she also may help Robin see the error of his ways and bring him back to Robert and Bess. And maybe help Lily in some way. And bring Rita and Daunt together, and make them realise they want to have a child together. And then the child would go again, onto somewhere else where her healing help was needed. 

Another story was Helena and Anthony Vaughan’s tragic history with their child, Amelia, having been stolen and them not knowing what happened to her, and all through the book I was really intrigued about what had happened to Amelia. I did feel that the found child wasn’t Amelia, and was then worried how this realisation would destroy Helena. And when the child was pronounced as not being Amelia, I really felt for poor Helena to in effect lose ‘Amelia’ again, my heart was bleeding for her. Although it was also bothering me that the Vaughans were no longer searching for Amelia, as they believed she had returned to them, so then when they knew that the child wasn’t Amelia I was then heartened that they could maybe go back to looking for the real Amelia as I was hating to think of her scared somewhere. And Anthony telling Amelia’s story to Mrs Constantine and the memory he pieced together of Amelia being dead, it was so very very sad. I had to re-read it to check I’d understood it right as I couldn’t understand at first why he’d not mentioned this before to anyone or even to himself, but I guess it was just too traumatic for him to deal with so he squashed it down. It was so very sad, but so cleverly and sensitively written. It was awful to think of him looking at his dead child and the heartbreak he had carried, although not knowing quite what he carried. And I kept wondering and wondering who had returned her dead body to him, I puzzled over why the kidnappers, if she was kidnapped, would do this and what they would gain by it as they were surely only bringing risk to themselves. I began to wonder if Victor had found Amelia dead, though he wasn’t involved in the kidnapping, and saw a way to make money by demanding a ransom for returning her. I was frustrated though with Anthony not saying anything at the time about Amelia being dead and letting Amelia’s body float away, which meant that no-one had investigated what had happened to her and no-one had been punished. And of course I kept wondering and worrying what exactly had happened to Amelia, it was awful to think of her suffering. I began to wonder if she wasn’t kidnapped at all, that perhaps there was an accident caused by the nursery-maid, Ruby, whose story of going for a walk seemed odd, or that Ruby had just found Amelia dead in her sleep and then panicked and thought she’d be blamed so tried to then dispose of Amelia’s body. We then learnt that Ruby left the house that night to have her fortune told by Maud the pig, and it seemed that Victor stole Maud so then I wondered if he deliberately enticed Ruby away so he could steal Amelia.

Another story was Robert Armstrong’s life with his wife Bess, who was the daughter of the farmer Robert bought the farm from. I think Robert is up there with some of my favourite characters in literature, I absolutely adored him, he was so admirable and honourable, always the outsider being black but so patient with the people he meets and their initial wary reaction to him being a tall black man. And I loved how caring he was with his animals and always carrying treats in his pockets for those he met. I was getting anxious for his pig, Maud, when she was stolen and hoped she would be returned to him, Maud being quite an amazing pig who was able to ‘solve’ people’s problems and counsel them and provide comfort. And I was desperate for the cruelly treated butcher’s boy, Ben, to go to Robert for sanctuary and got quite worried about him when he ran away from his horrible father and didn’t turn up at Robert’s where he was heading to. The identity of the found child greatly upsets Robert, he was keen to have the child’s identity known for sure, not in order to keep the child himself but to selflessly ensure the Vaughans could then relax and enjoy having Amelia back, or if it was Alice and his grandchild then she could belong with them. 

Another story was Robert’s horrible stepson Robin, aka Mr Fisher, and his relationship with Alice’s mother. Robin abandoned Alice’s mother resulting in her turning to prostitution and being raped by a client, and then apparently drowning Alice and killing herself, although Robin said she left him for another man. I doubted there was another man involved, I thought it was all him being horrible and abandoning her. I couldn’t fathom how he could be so horrible, when he’d been brought up by lovely Robert. I kept puzzling why Robin kept going back to look at the child at the Vaughan’s house, was he thinking of a money-making scheme, or was he genuinely regretful of how he treated Alice and her mother and if the child was Alice then he saw a way to put right this wrong. The fairground scene with Robin and Mrs Eavis was very dramatic! And it seemed to have all been orchestrated by Robin with having Mrs Eavis there, but I was again puzzling quite why, was it some plan of his to get money, or was it trying to get into Robert’s favour by giving Robert a grandchild. I kept hoping throughout the book that Robin got his comeuppance.

Another story was Lily and what had happened to her in her life and how she affected the current events. I was curious as to why she allowed Victor to visit her, and who he is to her. She was a very odd character, and there was also a mystery about her sister, Ann, drowning and if Lily was involved in this. We found out that Victor is Lily’s stepbrother, a horrible abusive man, and it was so awful to think of how he made her suffer for all those decades and how broken down and defeated she was, and also how she obviously learnt this behaviour around men from her mother and the same sad patterns of abuse were repeated. I kind of liked the thought that Maud the pig was with Lily and she was turning to Maud for help and benefitting from her skills, and I was thankful when Maud was found and that she went back to Robert’s when she had delivered her piglets and that Robert gave one of her piglets to Lily. I began to wonder if Ann was Victor’s and Lily’s child, with Lily referring to Ann as her sister which would fit if she was the product of her stepbrother so being kind of her sister, but that poor Lily was confused by all that had happened and what Victor did to her in creating Ann so didn’t see her as her daughter, and then maybe that Victor disposed of Ann as an inconvenience by drowning her. It then appeared that poor Lily did drown her sister, Ann, at Victor’s instigation and without knowing it was Ann, which made me wonder if Victor’s alarm at whether the child was talking was because he believed the child was Ann who survived somehow and could then tell on him. I also began to wonder if Ben’s father, the butcher, was actually Lily’s stepfather. And oh, we then found out that Lily didn’t drown Ann, which I was very thankful for, but that it really was a dead piglet in the blanket which Lily thought was Ann and Victor just played with Lily’s mind making her think she had drowned Ann, and that Ann was found far from home and was ill and died but that Lily had run away from her mother in shame, so mother lost both daughters. I did wonder if stepfather enticed Ann away presuming she would be lost and perhaps never found again. And we learnt that stepfather was hanged for other crimes, so he wasn’t the butcher. And I was intrigued by Lily’s husband, Mr White, who was also cruel and beat her but who Lily saw as an escape from Victor, and Mr White being found dead so I wondered if he was killed by Victor in jealousy.

Another story was Victor and his history and his aim to cause harm wherever he goes. I was intrigued as to why he was so interested in the stealing of Amelia and interested if the child living with the Vaughans was talking, I puzzled over how he could have been involved in the stealing of Amelia, or whether he wasn’t involved but was just using the situation as an opportunity to make money. He lived on Brandy Island, and made alcohol that he sold illegally, but it was puzzling where his money went. And Victor was the fortune-teller at the fairground trying to blackmail Anthony, so again I was puzzled how much he was actually involved with Amelia’s disappearance. Like with Robin, I kept hoping throughout the book that Victor got his comeuppance. And I puzzled over the significance to Robert of Victor’s surname of Nash, I began to wonder if he was the man who worked on Robert’s farm who raped Bess. Then Victor was chased by Daunt and Anthony and Robert and the others trying to capture him under suspicion he took and killed Amelia and he is presumed drowned while trying to escape them, but I began to wonder if Victor wasn’t actually dead. 

And there were the stories the people in the pub told about Quietley the riverman, and him saving souls or sending them on their way to the other side. All this was very intriguing, and I puzzled over whether it was relevant or just another example of story-telling. 

Another story was Rita and Mr Daunt, both very interesting characters, and I was wondering if they’d end up together as I really liked them together. 

And then the ending, phew, so much happened so quickly and dramatically, it was quite exhausting, but what a fantastic storyteller Diane Setterfield is! It was now a year since the child appeared and it is the winter solstice, and the river floods. The river had been so intricately woven through the story that I felt this flooding demonstrated its power and control. Robin turns up at Robert’s home demanding money and saying he will be killed if he doesn’t get it, Bess refuses and Robin pulls a knife on his sister before running off. Robert goes after him. Robin tells Robert he knows he isn’t his father, he believes Lord Embury is his father due to a letter he found at home and he believes Robert and Bess have been keeping the money intended for him that was mentioned in the letter (so this is why he is bitter and angry). Victor then arrives and tells Robin he is his father (eeek, so he was the man who raped Bess!), that he has trained Robin in his criminal ways and they have earned money together which allowed Robin to buy his nice house that Victor now owns by lending money to Robin. Victor tells Robert that he planted the idea onto Robin of stealing Amelia and getting money by ransom (oh no!), that Robin then planned it all by enticing Ruby away with the promise of the fortune-telling pig Maud, who he had previously helped Victor steal from Robert. Victor says he had the chloroformed Amelia in a sack and threw her to Robin in the boat, Robin dropped her cracking her head on the side of the boat and she then fell in the river and was lost for 10 minutes (oh no! Although at least Amelia didn’t suffer). They still claimed the ransom money and gave Amelia’s body to Anthony, so they knew that Anthony knew she was dead. Robin also said he knew the child that arrived a year ago wasn’t Alice but he was planning to make more money out of the Vaughans by selling her to them, but his plan was scuppered by Bess giving her to the Vaughans. Robin stabs Victor, and they both fall into the flood water and are collected by Quietley the riverman, and Robert also sees the child in the boat with Quietley. The child is missing. Helena goes into labour and Daunt takes Helena to Rita at The Swan where she is helping with the landlord Joe who is dying. A baby boy is born to Helena, whilst Joe dies. Joe’s son Jonathan says he saw Quietley come for Joe’s body while he was alone watching, Jonathan also saw the child in the boat who said to tell them that her father had come to fetch her. Lily escapes her flooded house, also rescuing Maud’s half-drowned piglet, and turns up at The Swan. Ben the butcher’s boy turns up at Robert’s with Alice, and explains that when he ran away he dropped onto a barge on the river passing under the bridge and heard the bargeman say Alice had landed in his barge the same way, Ben finds out the bargeman had taken Alice to an orphanage and he finds this orphanage and gains admittance and stays there looking for a chance to run away with Alice and head to Robert’s, and they both stay there with Robert and Bess. Rita and Daunt both miss the child desperately, so they decide to be together and have a child. After the flood retreats, Amelia’s skeleton is revealed and the Vaughans bury her and grieve and are counselled by Mrs Constantine and move to New Zealand with their son. Lily moves into the parsonage with her puppy. It is said the child belonged to the river gypsies and she fell overboard, they heard she was living with a rich family so knew she was safe and waited till they were up the river a year later to take her back. Others say she was Quietley’s child and gradually replaced him in looking after people who came to harm on the river.

I liked the way she concluded everything, the bad guys did get their come-uppance, though I was shocked at Robin’s involvement with Amelia’s kidnapping and death, I hadn’t seen that coming. I loved that Ben and Alice got their happy ending with Robert and Bess, and I hadn’t guessed that either as I had thought Alice was dead. I liked that Helena and Anthony got closure over Amelia when the flood water receded and her skeleton was revealed. And that Rita and Daunt got their happy ending together and happily conceived a child. And Lily had a nice safe conclusion too in moving in with the parson, although really what I was hoping for with Lily was that she went back to her mother, I really felt for her poor mother and how she must have suffered with losing Ann as she died of fever and losing Lily as she ran away feeling guilty, and losing her husband through him being hanged, although that was probably a blessing to her as he was evil and I’m sure led her a miserable life while they were married and she seemed scared of him even before they got married, I’d have liked Lily to have gone back to live with her and them both comfort and cherish each other.

I would still like to know if Lily’s stepfather took Ann away and abandoned her. And I’d like to know if Victor killed Lily’s husband, and why Victor wanted to know if the child was talking, he knew the child wasn’t Amelia, or did he think there was a chance she had survived. 

And I am torn with quite what the child was, I can’t decide if I want to go with the magical explanation of Quietley and his child, or the logical explanation of her being a river gypsy child. I think I prefer to think of her as a kind of magical fateful being who was sent to help people to resolve things, to help the Vaughans face things and heal and to bring love into their lives again, to bring about Robin’s and Victor’s ends, to give Robert and Bess another chance to raise a ‘Robin’ in his child Alice, to help Lily forgive herself, to bring Rita and Daunt together and allay their fears about the future. And then the child will move on again, onto somewhere else where her healing help is needed. 

The River Thames was almost like a magical character and wove its way through the story, and her description of the river could equally be used, as she probably intended, to describe a good story, “…en route the river does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination…its changes of direction are frequently teasing…it has other capricious tricks up its sleeve, at places it slows to drift lazily in wide pools before recovering its urgency and speeding on again…it splits into twin streams to maroon a lengthy piece of territory, then regathers its waters into a single channel…the beginning of the Thames is not the beginning – or rather it is only to us that it seems like a beginning…is more about motion than beginnings…better study where it goes than where it comes from”. She also describes the river in other beautiful ways and lovely imagery, “They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river, the air carries the story on a journey, one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next”, and “…the river was too vast a thing to be contained in a book. Majestic, powerful, unknowable, it lends itself tolerantly to the doings of men until it doesn’t, and then anything can happen”, and “…the water…seeming in its flashes of reflected light to contain fragments of the past and of the future. It has meant so many things to so many people over the years”.

I also loved how photography was used to capture different unseen things in the characters and perhaps reveal what is not already known about them or known by them about themselves, photography seemed like another almost magical thing, like the river. And the significance of having to stand still and gather yourself while waiting for the photograph to be taken, to stop and pause and think, was very powerful.

Pigs also seemed to play a big part in this book, not only Maud and how she ‘solves’ people’s problems and counsels them and provides comfort, but also how a person’s character was demonstrated by how they treat pigs, eg Robert treated them very well and was a good person, but Lily’s stepfather treated them carelessly and was a bad person, and it was a pig that Victor used to trick Lily and that Robin used to trick Ruby and they were both very bad people.

I think this is an enchanting beautiful book and she is a wonderful old-fashioned quality storyteller, and I feel quite lost now that I’ve finished it. I loved her writing style from the start, her obvious love for storytelling being demonstrated with all the history and the story-telling of the characters in the pub, and her love for the River Thames being demonstrated with her describing it like it’s a magical character. She is an amazing storyteller. I like the way she talks to the reader too, “That photograph, do you remember?”, and “That’s what I was meaning to come to”, and the beautiful phrase of “And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from.” 

I think this is one of the best books I’ve read in ages, and I can’t wait to read her others. I’d give the whole book 10 out of 10, I thought it was wonderful!

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

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