Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

once1Once Upon a River was one of my most anticipated reads for 2019.  This is my third book by this author and frankly I find her a storyteller of unusual depth and charm.  Her books have an almost ‘old quality’ and I find myself reading them with a powerful sense of nostalgia that takes me back to a time when my gran used to tell me and my sister old tales, some seemed to come straight out of her own imagination, some would be familiar, but those were times that we both loved and still hanker after.  Once Upon a River has a beautiful fairytale feel that evokes times of old and tells the story of an ancient inn where people still come to share stories over a jug or two of beer.

As the story begins the regulars of the Swan Inn are exchanging yarns when the door bursts open and in steps a man carrying a child, the two of them drenched and clearly the victims of an accident of some sort.  At first appearance the drinkers, maybe due to the drink, mistake the child for a puppet, her skin is so pale and waxy, and they focus their attention on the injuries sustained by the man until the innkeeper’s son realises this isn’t a puppet at all but a little girl of maybe 4 years.  The local nurse is called for who, in no nonsense fashion, sets about attending to the man’s injuries.  Meanwhile the body of the little girl is placed out of the way – it’s too late to treat her injuries, no pulse, dilated pupils and waxy skin tell their own tale.  And yet, something bothers the nurse, a nagging doubt that drives her to check the little girl once again and discover that she isn’t dead after all.  Mistake or miracle – the story is about to begin and their will be plenty of hypothesising and embroidering along the way.

I’m not going to elaborate further on the plot in this review.  This is a mystery story with a historic feel that uses folklore, superstition and magical realism to drive the tale forwards.

There are quite a number of characters involved.  We have a young couple who have suffered a terrible loss and are unable to drag themselves out of the depths of despair, we have a young girl who lives a strange existence on a remote spit of land along the Thames, we have a charismatic farmer and his family who seem to live a charmed life but for their oldest son who seems to be going astray somewhat, and we have the nurse, who long ago decided not to marry and bear children, having seen only too often the price paid in childbirth, however, that was before she found herself with a would be suitor in the form of the local photographer (who coincidentally was the injured man from the start of the story who has become fixated with the nurse who tended him).  Finally, the young girl whose miraculous recovery sparked stories to spread like wildfire up and down the banks of the Thames.  Everyone seems to be drawn to this young girl, she is an enigma, she hasn’t spoken since her recovery and her melancholy air draws people to her like a flame draws the moth.  They want to look after her, make her smile, but she remains aloof, unhappy and desperately attracted to the river that almost took her life.

The setting has a period feel although I’m not sure if an actual year was mentioned.  References to Darwin are made and the story has a Dicken’s feel in terms of the style and feel.  At times, there is a romantic, meandering, almost lyrical feel.  The place evokes a bygone age of charm and simplicity and yet at other times this is countered by the darkness of human behaviour and the more seedy side of existence.  I also loved the role that the Thames plays – at times twinkling innocently in spite of it’s deep and perilous currents, at other times shrouded in mist and mystery.  It almost takes on the persona of another character, sometimes moody, sometimes playful but always a force to be reckoned with and never to be underestimated.

The writing is beautiful, the type of writing that you simply have to savour.  This is not a book to be raced through although it is certainly a page turner.  I was quite bewitched to be honest although at the same time I would say this is a slow burner and at times there was almost a point where I almost, almost, reached that stage where I wanted to move forward and stop dwelling on a certain point – thankfully the author always seemed to move on at just the right moment.  However, be aware that this book definitely has the feel of an old style classic both in terms of the gentle pace and old fashioned sensibilities.  Personally, it worked for me like a charm but I recognise that I have a love of tales of this nature where the setting and telling have less of a contemporary feel and more of a determination to spin a tale that lures you slowly and surely.

Overall, I loved this book and I don’t have any criticisms.  My only caution to perspective readers would be that if you’re expecting a headlong rush through a mystery novel then this might not be the book for you.  If you like the idea of a beautiful, adult fairytale, told in a desultory fashion that evokes bygone days where magic and miracles still seemed possible then what are you waiting for.  An adult fairytales that manages to blend, history, mystery, folklore, religion and science and with all those things in the mix leaves you feeling ‘what if’.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.



28 Responses to “Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield”

  1. Tammy

    This sounds amazing, Lynn. I will definitely try to fit this in sometime. Thanks for your review!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I really enjoyed it, it does wind around a little but I really didn’t mind – bear in mind it’s not a speedy read though – although I did really hanker after knowing what really happened.
      Lynn 😀

  2. pcochrun

    Great review! Looks really good.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It worked very well for me but this is an author who I really like and her style is very captivating to me – they’re never fast and furious books but I just really enjoy them.
      Lynn 😀

      • pcochrun

        I’ve got a couple more I need to read and then I think I’ll be in the mood for something like that.

      • @lynnsbooks

        Hope you enjoy it.
        Lynn 😀

  3. Carmen

    Great job, Lynn. I LOVE your review! It is spot on. I’m struggling with mine. I’m not sure yet what to write, except that I want it to look exactly like yours. 🙂 I’ll be publishing mine either tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Thanks – just read your review too which is spot on.
      Lynn 😀

  4. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    I imagine that this book would work better when one is in a particular frame of mind and needs something different, something – as you said – to be savored and not consumed. A book for a time of thought and reflection, perhaps…
    Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      Definitely a book to take your time with. I love this author’s style, it does give me a feeling of whimsy and even though this is a dark(ish) tale it just bewitched me.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I’ve not really heard much about this, but it sounds wonderful!

    • @lynnsbooks

      It was very much my cup of tea, I admit, maybe not for everyone, but it felt like the author had written me my very own adult fairytale.
      Lynn 😀

  6. waytoofantasy

    Sounds fantastic, and like something I’d enjoy. Thanks for the review, Lynn!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I do love this author – you should check out her first book 13 Tales – it’s very well regarded.
      I loved the fairytale feel of this one though.
      Lynn 😀

  7. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this author before! I have seen this book around of course, but just know of it vaguely, mostly because of the striking cover. I had no idea it was a fairy tale and mystery kind of book!

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yeah, it’s like an adult fairytale – it’s dark for sure. I love all the little stories about The Thames and I do love this author’s style – this book does meander around a little which for me was fine but it’s not the sort of book that charges to the finish. I just loved the feel of it though, it’s very evocative and whimsical and feels like it’s sprung from a bygone era. You might have heard of 13 Tales which is the author’s first book – and very popular? Then Bellman and Black. I’ve enjoyed them all and they’re all quite different.
      Lynn 😀

      • Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

        Okay, I believe I’ve heard of Bellman and Black. Not recalling 13 Tales though, but maybe it’s because of the more common title!

  8. sjhigbee

    There are some books that need to be savoured – I love the sound of this one and many thanks for a wonderful review, Lynn.

  9. jessicabookworm

    Another read of yours which sounds right up my street! 😀

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yeah, I think this is one that you’d probably like to – a beautiful book, well written by a favourite author.
      Lynn 😀

  10. bkfrgr

    Oh my goodness! I had no idea Setterfield had a new book out! I’m so excited!! The Thirteenth Tale is one of my all-time favourites, and although I didn’t love Bellman and Black quite as much, Once Upon the River sounds awesome!! I’m off to make my library order a copy right now!! Thank you, Lyn! 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      I loved this and so hope you do too. All her books have been different so far and this is no exception. It had an old style/classic feel that I wasn’t expecting and really enjoyed and she’s just such a beautiful writer. Lynn 😄

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    […] Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield – ‘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’ – Miracle, magic or science – you’ll have to read to find out. […]

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