Once Upon a Thames (River) is a beautiful story of mystery, family and community, wonderfully coloured with the art of storytelling, not only in relation to the novel itself but the celebrated pastime of locals in the story at The Swan in Radcot near Oxford. The historic Thames is the anchor in the story and the theme of water flows throughout the novel. A river that one moment “helpfully turns a wheel to grind your barley, the next it drowns your crop.” A river that sees the silent ferryman ‘Quietly’ perform his mysterious duties.
“He sees to it that those who get into trouble on the river make it safely home again. Unless it is their time. In which case, he sees them to the other side of the river.”
The Swan was recognised as a magnet for storytellers, and their greatest story was just about to unfold when a stranger staggers through the door of the inn with a dead girl in his arms. Both soaked as though from the river, the child appeared drowned and the man now unconscious were both cared for by Rita. Rita is a most fascinating character, a nurse whose experience and pursuit of knowledge competes if not surpasses doctors. A woman whose rational thinking and scientific explanation is fascinating to follow and connect with. Her logical brain is puzzled with the young dead girl.
“Wherever you looked at her, this child was unmarked, unbruised, ungrazed, uncut. The little body was immaculate. ‘Like a doll,’ Jonathan had told her when he described the girl falling into his arms, and she understood why he had thought so.
That death had made no mark on her was strange enough, but nor had life, and that, in Rita’s experience, was unique. A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page.”
Rita’s examination is stretched to wonderment when the child awakes, although, she will not or cannot speak.
Several families have mysteriously lost young girls and they believe that the four-year-old child is their daughter or sister. A scenario that suggests some supernatural power, or several lying opportunists in pursuit of their own dark machinations, or grief playing with minds that can’t accept the loss of a loved one. Even those that don’t claim the girl to be their own, have a strange attraction to her and a mix of emotions that brings forward the desire to have a child.
The story towards the resolution of the young girl’s fate and the incidents that struck such loss into several lives is compelling and filled with vivid imagery that casts enthralling insights into a landscape and activity during the Victorian era. Diane Setterfield draws on historical facts to add authenticity to the narrative and one such fascinating subject was expressed through one of hte main characters, Henry Daunt, as the photographer capturing the images of people and places, and he lives on a riverboat where he operates his studio. The real Henry Taunt captured 53,000 photographs most of which now reside in Oxford.
While I loved the idea of the story, I felt that the narrative delayed at times which lost momentum by backtracking or side-stepping with material that wasn’t necessary. I was amazed at times and frustrated at others. This is a thought Ceecee and I had while we read this as a buddy read. I would recommend this book and always great to be reading Diane Setterfield.