Though Setterfield's serpentine Victorian tale feels a bit dense, Once Upon a River--filled with cast of quirky characters--is a colorful story. The author constructs an unusually forward-thinking approach to the metaphor of the Thames River and the villagers who drink at the Swan at Kelmscott, a pub that depends on the river for its livelihood. Setterfield wastes no time establishing the novel's tone, skillfully manipulating her images of this great body of moving water, "a stretch of liquid blackness." From the moment the story opens, the Thames flows outside the window, shifting and undulating darkly as if illuminated by some energy of its own making.
On the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the Swan's landlords, Margot and Joe Bliss attend to their guests in a world where the borders between night and day seem to stretch with dreams. The villager's stories merge with a sort of "loved experience." A man arrives and falls unconscious. His clothes are soaking wet and he smells of the river--green and brown. There's been some accident on the water. Perhaps the man is a river gypsy. There's also something darkly unfathomable gripping him: a little girl, her skin "shimmering like water."
Rita, the local nurse and midwife, takes charge. Death is certainly on Rita's mind as the winter chill carries the tang of earth stone. Was it at the Devil's Weir where they came to grief? Perhaps the man had drifted, guided by The Ferryman, an elongated, gaunt mythical figure who haunts the Thames and appears when the villagers are in trouble in the water. The injured man had appeared to the inhabitants of the Swan like something from a folktale, "a monster or a ghoul," and the child a "puppet or a doll."
Determined to conduct an investigation into the girl's identity, Rita starts at the river. New clues reveal the man is photographer Henry Daunt. With the help of an odd assortment of characters, Rita sets out to find the girl's home. Helena and Anthony Vaughan of Buscott Lodge lost little Amelia, who was taken, two years ago. Since then, Helena has been inconsolable. Robert and Bess Armstrong have long been searching for Alice, their granddaughter. Maid Lily White is convinced that the girl is her long-dead sister.
Setterfield's novel is lovingly evocative of the rhythms and richness of 19th-century rural life, as well as reflecting the time's lingering class differences and superstitions. Robert Armstrong is an outsider. Buoyed by the unorthodoxy of his birth (his father was an earl and his mother a black servant girl), Robert is haunted by the child and the loss of his beloved pig, Maude. He's angry at his son, Robin, for gambling his life away.
The most interesting character is Rita. A confirmed spinster, she has an unyielding desire to be connected to "the world outside herself." Though Rita is attracted to Henry, more urgent for her is her effort to find out the identity of the child. We feel the grief tinging Lily and Helena's cold-hearted bitterness as the "river shifts and presses beneath her." Henry admits that he has photographed a child, yet he doesn't remember her name. Is it Alice? Is it Amelia? Henry Vaughan is not sure. Wracked with insomnia, Vaughan's leaden realization is that the girl is perhaps a "changeling." Reaching into his dreams, Vaughan attempts to arrange her face to the memory of his own lost daughter.
Tumbling us into the Victorian period's deep concerns over photography, and art, science and mysticism, Setterfield revels in this contradictory tale of the drowned girl who once lived again and of "a river's chill that carries with it the ghostly tang into a fairy-tale world where dreams and stories merge.
From pig rustling and farm life to fairground trickery, Setterfield's serpentine story seems both realistic and ingeniously creative. Where did the girl come from? Where has she gone to? The narrative proceeds in a puzzling and unfinished, out-of-kilter fashion while the Thames continues to swell and subside without insistence in a careful and watchful ambience.