December 3, 2018

Book Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Publication Date: December 4, 2018

Source: Netgalley

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.


“When a story is yours to tell, you are allowed to take liberties with it.”  

In Once Upon a River, the river Thames is a symbol for stories and storytelling – it is what connects people, winding its way from village to village, drawing them in, sometimes swallowing them whole.  Fascinating and dangerous, all at once.  The pale child, thought to have drowned but miraculously come alive, is a mysterious cipher.  She is the blank slate or canvas upon whom everyone projects their own interpretation of what she is and how she figures in their own tragic narrative.  The cast of characters is vast, but like the river, Setterfield unites them all and renders each with fine, specific strokes. 

They were collectors of words the same way so many of the gravel diggers were collectors of fossils.  They kept an ear constantly alert for them, the rare, the unusual, the unique.”


Like in The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black, Setterfield weaves a rich and layered narrative in Once Upon a River. However, it might move a tad too slow – more like a still but deep river on a summer’s day, rather than a raging rapid. Also, the heavy-handed allusion to storytelling might be too distracting for some. Once Upon a River is best experienced by letting yourself surrender to the currents and drifting wherever the story takes you.

“So it was that after the impossible event, and the hour of the first puzzling and wondering, came the various departures from the Swan and the first of the tellings.  But finally, while the night was still dark, everybody at last was in bed and the story settled like sediment in the minds of them all, witnesses, tellers, listeners.  The only sleepless one was the child herself, who, at the heart of this tale, breathed the seconds lightly in and lightly out while she gazed at nothing and listened to the sound of the river rushing by.”