On the edge of the Thames, overlooking Radcot bridge, sits an ancient pub called the Swan, whose patrons are known for their storytelling abilities. One night, their tales are disrupted by the sudden arrival of a man with bloodied face carrying what appears to be a puppet. The man passes out, and the town’s midwife is called upon to attend to his injuries. As she cleans and stitches his lip, and resets his broken nose, someone realizes the puppet he was carrying is in actual fact the body of a deceased girl. Eventually, the midwife is able to examine the corpse, and as she does the little girl miraculously comes back to life. Though she seems in good health, she does not speak. Once the injured man regains consciousness, he is able to explain that he got in a boating accident on the river, and as he came to shore he found the girl’s body floating in the river. Where she came from, and to whom she belongs is unclear; especially when more than one family comes forward identifying her as their missing daughter.
It’s a strange sensation to read a book in February, aware that it may be the best book you read all year. Diane Setterfield is the author of one of my favorite books, The Thirteenth Tale. Now, I have her latest novel to add to my list of all-time favorites. She’s a crackerjack writer. I found myself lovingly patting this book whenever I had to pause reading, as if the novel was a purring kitten in my lap.
I’m not sure how to describe her writing style, except to say it’s penetrant. Her writing permeates the sensibilities to such a degree that it’s easy to temporarily forget one’s surroundings outside of the book. This is likely due to the fact that she’s a virtuoso of description. Take, for example, her description of Joe Bliss, one of the proprietor’s of the Swan:
“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. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by.”
I mean. That’s just delightful. I can instantly picture Joe Bliss. I can imagine sitting in the Swan, watching him tell a story, animatedly punctuating the tale with his eyebrows.
I’m guessing some readers will gripe that aspects of the story are predictable. That’s true. Though, I wasn’t bothered by the predictability. The characters that populate the Swan are content to hear the same stories told and retold, out of sheer appreciation for how the story was crafted. I found the same to be true of my experience reading Once Upon a River. I was perfectly content to let the story wash over me, basking in the artistry of a tale well told.