Diane Setterfield infests familiar terrain in "Once Upon a River," a mysteriously mystical tale of a dumb child that fascinates the city's inhabitants after it has apparently returned from death.
The author of "The Thirteenth Tale" and "Bellman & Black" begins this story in a winter solstice more than a hundred years ago. A stranger almost drowned arrives in a country inn, seriously injured and carrying a girl who, apparently, is already dead. Despite the state of the child's corpse, however, the local nurse, Rita, discovers an impulse.
Although the girl is revived, the stranger falls into unconsciousness and so the mysteries quickly accumulate like branches entangled in the river: what happened to him? How was it saved? Who is the child? How did she die and then live again?
Above all, who does it belong to?
Three separate families claim the girl: Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she is their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think he is the illegitimate nephew they would love dearly at home; and Lily White hopes she is the sister whose loss has drowned in guilt.
These characters are finely designed and completely sympathetic, their life is rendered in precise and moving details. The female characters in particular are endowed with an uncommon clarity, each of a different kind. Rita is a woman of science, Helena has strong emotional instincts, Bess is blessed by intuition and Lily has an unyielding vision of practical realities.
Even so, each character lives in a state of deep denial, alleviating painful realities telling stories. Setterfield illuminates how such stories may be our most compelling forays into fiction. Even among the whirlwind doubts about the identity of the child, Helena depends on finding her daughter in this lost girl who builds a new world elaborately on top of the ruins of her old life, with the dumb girl in the middle.
At different points the narrative emphasizes the powers of oral tradition, photography and performance, using stories that lie between fiction and the fact of revealing essential truths to the speaker and the audience.
The river acts both as a setting and as a character, a force in the daily lives of its neighbors. Although Setterfield writes emotions with wonderful truth and subtlety, his most striking prose is reserved for evocative descriptions of the natural world, creating an immersive experience of light, texture, fragrance and sensation.
The chronology is slippery, flashes back and jumps months ahead. Although every branch of history is well served, we pass some intervals away from each character. Rather than resent these diversions, however, the reader is in need of updates that the next chapter will bring.
The central mysteries of the novel are sent in a dramatic scene that feels exaggerated, especially considering that it is not yet another conspiracy as much as a story for those who appreciate as much as the story as its end – which mark with interest the curves in the river, and who will treasure the friends they meet along the way.
Ellen MortonHe is a writer in Los Angeles.
ONCE ON A RIVER
By Diane Setterfield
Atria / Emily Bestler. 480 pp. $ 28.