“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.”
So begins this long, lush, and winding tale filled with mystery, myth, and just a hint of magic. The river serves as a metaphor as well as a setting. You see, storytellers gather at the Swan at Radcot along the Thames on a winter night when something extraordinary happens. They gather, they watch, they listen, then retell the tale of a small girl who was dead, but then was not.
Author Diane Setterfield understands that “A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page…. tributaries are about to join this story. We might, in the quiet hour before dawn, leave this river and this long night and trace the tributaries back, to see not their beginnings—mysterious unknowable things—but, more simply, what they were doing yesterday.”
On the boundaries between reality and imagination, life and death, past and present, she writes:
“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 the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”
On the art and practice of storytelling:
“When a story is yours to tell, you are allowed to take liberties with it…”
“They were collectors of words the same way so many of the gravel diggers were collectors of fossils. They kept an ear constantly alert for them, the rare, the unusual, the unique.”
“With a bit of practice he found he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk, or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling as well as any actor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told as much of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited close attention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed.”
As you can see, the concept of storytelling is key to Once Upon a River. Perhaps that’s why the audiobook voiced by Juliet Stevenson works so well. However, readers who expect slam-bang-pow action on the first page may be disappointed. This story beckons you inside. It invites. It lures. It tantalizes. Recommend.