Another square down, and another trip down (also up, under, and through) the Thames (looking at you, Rivers of London). The Thames is the titular river of Once Upon a River another story about telling stories from Diane Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale).
A mysterious man and a young girl come crashing through the doors of The Swan, an inn on the river that is well known for it’s story and for it’s story tellers. The man is grievously injured; the girl is stone dead. The regulars at the inn, who live to tell and weave stories, start right away with conjecture and performance. Who are they? What happened? Who saw? How is the girl, dead moments before, now alive?
The girl is the mystery; pronounced dead and alive again by the country nurse, her identity is murky as the river water itself. She could be the kidnapped daughter of a rich couple, the estranged granddaughter of a gentleman farmer, the long lost sister of a local loner- but she is immediately mute. Is she unwilling or unable to attest to her own identity?
The players jockeying for position to be her family are all bound by one thing: money. The wealthy couple have payed ransom before and are able to do it again. The gentleman farmer runs a successful and fair business, but his estranged son is racking up debts up and down the river. The loner is traumatized by her past life, and she hides her meager savings from a man that comes by regularly to steal from her and to rough her up.
The players trying to help solve the mystery are able to dedicate their time because they possess money: the nurse is independently wealthy, the innkeepers run a full and thriving business, and the injured man is a photographer and wealthy widower. Money allows people the space to attempt to care; these folks need not worry about keeping themselves and their families fed, clothed, and in a house- they have all they need with excess to spare.
The women of this story- without whom the tale would fall flat- are bound in service to money. Those who need it must give their emotional labor, and those who do not must pay with their physical labor. While reading I was frequently reminded of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent; another 19th Century tale of women of means charging out of their long-assigned roles to solve watery mysteries. There were shades of Geraldine Brooks throughout as well, which gave me the melancholy feeling of wishing that her newer work would return to the glory of her old. I think I need to pick up Year of Wonders again sometime soon, what with the current pandemic and the current string of CBR reviews!
Lastly, I cannot delve into English folklore without a murder ballad, and this one is river themed to boot: