Book Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Name:  Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Number of Pages:
380 (Hardback)
January 1st 2019 by Doubleday
Genre:  Fiction, Historical


A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science?
Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

My Rating:

My Thoughts:

Once Upon a River blends historical, mystery, hints of folklore and magic into an engrossing, meandering tale of life along a stretch of the river.

Many lives are played out alongside the riverbank, and we see them all, tied together on the night of the Winter Solstice, when a young girl is rescued and bought into the Swan at Radcot. The girl has drowned, and is dead, but in a turn of events she revives. Is it magic? Is it science? And who is the young girl at the heart of this tale?

Several people believe she belongs to them, that there is a place for her in their family, or that she is their daughter/sister/etc, lost some time ago. So, is this mute young girl a missing daughter of one family, the granddaughter of another, or the sister of someone else? Or is she someone else entirely?
W delve into these various lives, witnessing all manner of things – love, family, friendship, but also darker things – fear, loss, scheming.

The power of stories and storytelling,  love of a good narrative, and the tendency for stories to be adapted with each telling is plain in Once Upon A River, as locals gather in the pub to recall the initial finding of the girl, and develop their own storytelling skills with other tales.
There is a magical quality to some of these tales, such as that of Quietly, the ferryman who dwells upon the river, somewhere between life and death; he is there to meet those who fall in. If it’s their time, then over to the other side of the river they go, if not, Quietly will help them back to safety.

Once Upon a River is a real slow burner and remains so throughout, it meanders like the very river it centres around, travelling here and there, touching various places and lives before reaching its conclusion. It’s a tale to become fully immersed in, savouring the language and the imagery, and is very much centred around the everyday whilst being touched by an air of the magic and mysterious.


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