Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Everyone has a story, and the regulars at the ancient The Swan inn on the Thames are no exception. They drink, swap tales, jest, and repeat. But, one night, a haggard man collapses on the threshold, the corpse of a small girl in his arms.

Only, she wakes up.

The questions and, with them, the stories swirl. Who is she? How did she get there? Why do three sets of people separately feel they know her? And do the answers come down to science or magic or something else entirely?

Much of the success of this novel stems from the use of a large cast of characters. The reader’s focus, like the rushing water in the ever-present river, is never in one place for too long. Helena and Anthony Vaughan hope the girl is their daughter, kidnapped two years prior. Robert Armstrong, a Black farmer, assumes the girl is his absent son’s daughter. Lily White, surely in her forties, claims the girl as her sister. Through it all, Nurse Rita Sunday and photographer Henry Daunt, juggle between the factions, investigating and aiding, while their own stories complicate. Each section contains riveting, high-stakes, and sometimes even playful wordcraft and plot-play at its finest.

At the novel’s core is the conundrum of the child, and this alone would be enough for a healthy book. However, author Diane Setterfield’s prose twists and turns, but always moves with the current. The multitude of plotlines are never overwhelming, and the result is a fully realized world that’s easy to dip into. She guides readers across scenes like an expert ferryman, a twinkle in her writing. She knows how both the story and the trip will end but understands it’s really the journey that’s important. Just when you feel you know where you’re going—Ah, look! Another turn up ahead.

Special mention must be given to the folklore, myths, and magic which are abundant. The novel takes place on the cusp of change, right at the dawn of Darwinism. Rita opts for scientific reasoning in the face of mysticism and folktales. These two worlds are most interesting when complicated by each other. In many ways, assuming this were all true (and, really, aren’t all stories based in some truth?), this places the events of Once Upon a River as perhaps the first of tales somewhere between fairytale and science story.

At the beginning, readers are introduced to the inn regulars who constant opine on the art of the story. Diane Setterfield deftly suggests everyone has a story, and we should all be thankful she shares hers.

Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: December 04, 2018
Classification: Historical Fiction

Author’s Website | Publisher’s Page | Goodreads

Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.


  1. Great review! For once I’ve read a book that everyone is talking about! The author followed me on Twitter (wow!) and I requested an ARC because of this,… glad I did, because it’s an extraordinary book.
    Hello, by the way, nice to meet you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m feeling the same way— usually I request titles that are a little more niche and not what everyone seems to be reading. So happy to see how much positive attention this one is getting, though. Well deserved and, like you say, it’s extraordinary.

      Also, nice to meet you as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I find myself reading more of what other bloggers are, since I started blogging – because I can’t resist requesting books that I keep hearing about! Before that, I tended to read older books.

        Liked by 1 person

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