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Excerpt from Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield X
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2018, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Print Excerpt


Margot's husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble, twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thames emerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more than a patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. They were born small and ailing and most of them were goners before they were grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened, until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and often before they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthood shorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, their noses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.

At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labor, Joe had left Kemble to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. From Kemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewhere in the world, but the river has its pull; you'd have to be mightily perverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty, stopped for a drink. The frail-looking young man, with floppy black hair that contrasted with his pallor, sat unnoticed, eking out his glass of ale, admiring the innkeeper's daughter, and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be among people who spoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his head since boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Once upon a time ... came out.

Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had brought him to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. 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. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by. Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan, he knew how to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellbound too, and she him.

At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He won first prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He came home grey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and, at the end of it, got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.

"I don't know ..." her mother said. "Can he work? Can he earn a living? How will he look after a family?"

"Look at the takings," Margot pointed out. "See how much busier we are since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don't marry him, Ma. He might go away from here. Then what?"

It was true. People came more often to the inn these days, and from further away, and they stayed longer to hear the stories Joe told. They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.

"But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in here and admire you so ... wouldn't one of those do better?"

"It is Joe that I want," Margot said firmly. "I like the stories."

She got her way.

That was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, and in the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twenty years they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot's thick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom young women with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now. One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller and one a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but in every other respect they were so like their mother that the drinkers could not tell them apart, and when they returned to help out at busy times, they were universally known as Little Margot. After bearing all these girls there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them thought her years of child-bearing were at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, their only son.

Excerpted from Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. Copyright © 2018 by Diane Setterfield. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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