Book review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Title: Once Upon A River

Author: Diane Setterfield

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Transworld Digital

Publication date: 24th January 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆


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?

My review:

“There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all.”

When a lost girl appears in a pub by the river, carried by a man who collapses as soon as he enters the building, the community is astounded by the situation but quickly come together to care for the girl. The mystery deepens when several people come forward, certain that the lost girl belongs to their family. This intriguing beginning was quick paced and well developed, already showing a lot of promise only a few chapters into the book.

Once Upon A River may be classed as Historical Fiction but often crosses the line into Fantasy with its folklore and fantastical elements. The author does this gradually by dipping into new realms with these writing mechanisms and slowly building up the setting and backstory with hints of possible magical elements that may explain the situation surrounding the lost girl. I found this to be one of the strongest aspects of the book and was pleased to see how well it was incorporated into the main storyline.

Another important factor which explains the richness of this book is the unique setting and the eloquent descriptions and language which worked incredibly well in bringing in the reader to the present moment. I was often completely lost into the book while I was reading which doesn’t often happen to me so I was pleasantly surprised at just how well the setting was mapped out.

Ultimately it is always the characters which make Historical Fiction books feel special and unique and I was happy to see a lot of character progression with most of the characters in the book. I was originally unable to foresee how their stories would overlap as several characters did not seem relevant to the plot until a long way into the book however each character ended up fitting well into the storyline without having a predictable outcome.

Once Upon A River is a vivid and enchanting tale told through the eyes of ordinary people in an extraordinary setting. It flows just like a river would and unfortunately the pace was lost somewhere towards the middle of the book however it quickly picked up speed and ultimately left me satisfied and even wishing for a sequel. The storytelling was exquisite and has left me eager to explore other books by this author.

“And now, dear reader, the story is over. 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, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?” 

6 thoughts on “Book review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

  1. The storytelling in this book is simply beautiful and I also loved the fantastical elements, with the frequent personifications of the river. You really captured all those things in your fantastic review, Darina!

    Liked by 1 person

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