Book Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Author: Diane Setterfield
Title: Once Upon a River
Publication Date: 17 January 2019
On 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 and in steps an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to?

An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming 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.
For thousands of years, people have been sharing and listening to stories. Storytelling provides a flow of knowledge through the generations, passing along traditions, history and legends. A key theme in Once Upon a River is the art of storytelling and Setterfield’s own narration will certainly draw you in.

The story begins at the Swan Inn in Radcot, a town where superstition and storytelling are at the very heart of the community. An injured stranger stumbles through the door of the inn, carrying the lifeless body of a small girl. When the girl comes back to life, so begin the questions – Was she really dead? Who is she? Who is the unconscious man who carried her into the inn? he story quickly settles into a pursuit for truth, gradually unraveling the mystery of the girl’s appearance and her identity. With the hunt for the child’s true identity, comes the resolution to a few long-standing mysteries that have plagued a few of the main characters.

The plotting of the tale is very well done and results in a rich, multilayered story. The Thames river plays a significant role in the book, and with a part-gothic, part-folklore feel, the tale twists, turns and meanders along, like a metaphorical river.  I enjoyed the balance between science and folklore within the story, with mentions of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Rita’s description of childbirth, running alongside more mythical beliefs such as the dragons in a local village and the intriguing story of Quietly the Ferryman and his watery mission. The book does address a number of themes, such as racial abuse, poverty, disability, mental health, death and yet it remains hopeful and positive.

One of the real joys of this book is the writing. The wording is very clever, frequently including river-themed metaphors whilst flowing along in a lyrical fashion, almost echoing the ebb and flow of the river. As a reader, you get the impression that much thought has gone into every single sentence. The author definitely has a way with words.

The characters are a delight. I did find the sheer number of central characters a bit confusing at first, yet I was struck by how the author masterfully creates such richly drawn characters with such apparent ease. Despite the era in which the story was set, I enjoyed seeing how strong each of the female characters were, no matter their position in life.

The story is wordy and gentle, this is not a fast-paced seat-of-your-pants kind of book. However it grabbed my attention and the final chapters are well worth the journey for the patient readers among us. It is a book that reaches over genres and is quite difficult to categorise. If you enjoy a mystery, or a historical novel, or even a fairy tale this may be a book for you.

Once Upon a River is a beautifully written, haunting and immersive tale. It really was a treat to read.

Thanks to Netgalley UK and Doubleday Books for providing a copy of this book for review.
About the Author

Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and is enjoyed as much for being ‘a love letter to reading’ as for its mystery and style. Her second novel, Bellman & Black (2013 is a genre-defying tale of rooks and Victorian retail. January 2019 sees the publication of her new title, Once Upon a River, which has been called ‘bewitching’ and ‘enchanting’.

Born in Englefield, Berkshire in 1964, Diane spent most of her childhood in the nearby village of Theale. After schooldays at Theale Green, Diane studied French Literature at the University of Bristol. Her PhD was on autobiographical structures in André Gide’s early fiction. She taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France, and later lectured in French at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing.

The Thirteenth Tale was acquired by Heyday Films and adapted for television by the award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, Christopher Hampton. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, it was filmed in 2013 in North Yorkshire for BBC2. The TV rights to Once Upon a River have even sold to Kudos (Broadchurch, Spooks, Grantchester).

Diane Setterfield has been published in over forty countries.

Diane lives in Oxford, in the UK. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading. She is, she says, ‘a reader first, a writer second.’

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