I'm feeling selfish for bagging two such enticing books - but how could I resist? I read both during the dark winter nights and slow mornings of January and early February; usually an early riser I stayed later in bed, happily caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers.
Diane Setterfield is best known for The Thirteenth Tale, though my preference is for Bellman and Black, the story of a Mephistophelean bargain involving a rook and a funeral parlour. Her new novel Once Upon a River has a clever title, suggesting folk tales and traditional telling, a story passed from mouth to mouth with changes as it goes, mysterious and possibly miraculous events, and an invitation to put ourselves in the hands of a knowing and confident narrator. All that, and everything that’s added by the river setting, with its associations of timelessness, constancy and meanderings, of the rhythms of the season, occasional breaking of bounds and – here – either barrier or conduit between this world and others. The key events of Setterfield’s tale take place at the year’s marker-points: solstices and equinoxes, starting on a cold midwinter night. “As the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap.”
The opening pages are reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage: an inn on the Thames not far from Oxford, the potential for flooding and even a baby placed in the care of nuns. But that baby is not the focus of attention. Instead, the regular drinkers at the Swan – gravel-diggers, cressmen, bargemen – are startled by the arrival of a half-drowned, injured stranger, carrying what at first is taken for a puppet but is soon discovered to be the body of a four-year-old girl. There’s a further shock when nurse and midwife Rita (the nunnery orphan, now adult) discovers, after an improbable length of time and against all initial evidence, that the little girl is alive.
Who is she? As we meet the cast of characters, we learn of three competing claims. Is she Amelia, stolen from her wealthy parents, the Vaughans, two years ago? Is she Alice, daughter of the negligent Robin Armstrong, drowned by her desperate mother? Is she Ann, sister of Lily White, a disturbed young woman who’s been persuaded that she’s responsible for her sibling’s death? The child, recovering, remains mute, offering no clues to her identity. Soon after the rescue she is taken to live with Antony Vaughan and his fragile wife Helena; yet this happens so early in the tale that we know there must be more to unravel, and she remains “the girl” throughout the narrative. Only Bess Armstrong with her “seeing eye” detects what the girl really wants, though readers are unlikely to guess the final surprise.
While we engage with various characters, the links between them become apparent, twining and tightening. It’s an atmospheric and compelling tale of love, loss and loyalty which in spite of its playfulness will engross readers in the stories of reluctant lovers Rita and Daunt, in the anguish of the troubled Lily and in kindly Robert Armstrong’s search for his missing granddaughter. And who could resist a man who grieves for an intelligent pig, stolen from him two years ago and still sorely missed? As the pages thinned I found myself not wanting the story to end, but Setterfield kindly dismisses us: "It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"
Bridget Collins won the Branford Boase prize for her first young adult novel, The Traitor Game, and went on to publish six more for that age group, but without making the impact her talents deserve. This, her first adult novel, has been published with a great splash, immediately reaching the bestseller lists. The premise is a clever and beguiling one: binding someone's memories into a book is a way of permanently removing guilt or trauma. Permanently, that is, unless the books are burned ... And the "binding", we realise, isn't always for the sufferer's benefit. The setting is - like Setterfield's - in a world both like and unlike ours, vaguely Victorian, and in what could be Hardy's Wessex; there's enough sexual abuse, corruption and manipulation to keep the bookbinders fully occupied. Books themselves - especially those that have been sold, rather than kept hidden in locked cupboards or vaults - are viewed with suspicion. "They're people's lives ... Stolen. Sucked out. It's a kind of magic ... a dirty, sordid kind of magic."
The three-part structure starts in the middle. A young man, Emmett Farmer, is recruited as apprentice to an elderly female bookbinder, Seredith, who recognises in him the necessary gift. Learning the crafts of tooling, marbling and finishing (gorgeously described), he doesn't penetrate to the heart of the mystery until he's sent to the home of the Darnays, where he discovers that one of several books destined for their vault has his own name on it.
To discover why he's been 'bound', we return to his family home, where a love triangle develops - so tenderly, yearningly told - between Emmett, aristocrat idler Lucian Darnay and Emmett's sister Alta. Bridget Collins is wonderful on the tentative approaches and withdrawals, the shy glances, the misgivings and self-doubts of sexual attraction. Forbidden love, that staple of romantic fiction, acquires a new potency here through our awareness that only one - or, initially, none - of the participants is aware of what's happened between them. The idea of brainwashing, more commonly found in science fiction or political dystopias, is given unusual and powerful treatment here. If you knew that you'd been 'bound', and there was a way of recovering your lost memories, would you choose to? Or would the fear that you'd committed some terrible crime persuade you to remain in ignorance?
As the story gathers pace and urgency it raises issues of repression and self-knowledge, power and abuse. With its lushness and emotional sweep and the tight focus on the youthful main characters, on emerging sexuality and defiance of conventions set by elders, this captivating story could have continued Bridget Collins' impressive run of teenage novels. But the switch to adult fiction has successfully - and immediately - brought her storytelling prowess to a wide and appreciative audience.
Once Upon a River is published by Doubleday.
The Binding is published by The Borough Press.