Book review – Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield


I am a big fan of a good story. One that captures my attention, has at least one or two characters that I can identify with, and leaves me with a satisfying conclusion. I am happy to say I found all of those things in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.

I read her first book The Thirteenth Tale when it was released a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. In fact I had not only read it but later listened to it as an audio book.  However, her second book Bellman and Black, did not capture me at all.

Hearing good reviews of Once Upon a River I dove in and was immediately dropped on to the edge of the River Thames and I pulled up a stool in The Swan at Radcot ready for a good yarn.

One of the central themes to the book is the telling of tales and how the telling and retelling changes and molds them. The Swan has the reputation as the place to go for a tale and the regulars are suddenly thrown into the middle of a very perplexing story indeed.

On mid winters night the door flings open to reveal a man, grievously injured, with the body of a small girl in his arms, . The girl, whom many of them had assumed was a doll, returns to life a few hours later and the epic tale of the girl who died and lived again is gifted to Radcot.

The cast of characters are well drawn and though there are a lot of them, they remain clear individuals in my mind. Life on the river is woven into the story and the Thames is as much of a character in the novel as any other.

The child remains mute, the injured man recovers but is not her father as some supposed. In fact nothing is known for sure about who this child is or why she ended up dead in the river. Unraveling her story without her input is the rest of the tale and it takes as many twists and turns as the river itself.

Setterfield uses rich language to draw the reader through the year that follows. The landscape she describes so well is dead at mid winter and is alive again by mid summer. What was dead is alive again; life and death are everywhere.

Also throughout the book is the concept of family. What makes up a family and what responsibilities do the people within them have towards each other? How do love and loyalty bond people? How are bonds tested?

Like most good tales there are secrets, because when the reader knows something many of the characters don’t know it keeps the story exciting. And there are ghosts. But are they real or are they a creation?

The conclusion was as satisfying as I could have hoped for, those caught up in this tale can go on to live and tell the story for years to come. I expect, if the Swan was real and you asked for a pint today, it would come with the story of the girl.

As I read I could see this novel as a 3/4 part TV adaptation, I hope someone has snapped up the rights and does it justice. But before that happens, I know I will be reading (or listening) to it again.


2 Comments on “Book review – Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

  1. I loved The Thirteenth Tale and I’m so looking forward to reading this!

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