Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (pbk.)

Review by Jane Carter, 29 August 2019

I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first book, I was disappointed by her second; but when I saw the title of this third novel I thought that everything would be alright and as soon as I started to read I was quite certain that it would.

Imagine curling up in a big armchair by a blazing fire on a wild and stormy night and listening to a story-teller who will have you hanging on every word and completely wrapped up in the story from beginning to end.

Reading this book was rather like that.

Back in the latter years of the 19th century there were many inns along the banks of the Thames and each one was renowned for something different, from music to gambling, from brawling to storytelling …

It was the Swan Inn at Radcot that was known for its storytelling. It had been run for generations by the Ockwell family and it was a place where grand stories, with a good sprinkling of folklore and magic, were told, talked over, and re-told.

The grandest of all of the stories that would ever be told at the Swan Inn began on the night of the winter solstice. A badly injured stranger came through the door, carrying what all of those present believed to a large, bedraggled puppet.

They were wrong.

The man was carrying a lifeless young girl.

Rita Sunday, the local nurse and widwife, was called and she quickly established that the girl had no pulse and was not breathing and that there was nothing she could go for her. She was laid out in a cold outer room while Rita treated the man’s injuries. Later she went back to the girl, because she couldn’t understand how she had died, and she was astonished to small signs of life. The girl would live. Rita’s scientific interest is piqued, because she cannot comprehend how anyone who is so clearly dead can recover and live.

Nobody knows who the child is or where she came from, and she is unable to speak or tell to tell anyone anything about herself or her history.

She might be the child of a wealthy couple who had been kidnapped years earlier.

She might be the granddaughter of a gentleman farmer who knew that his estranged son had abandoned his wife and child.

She might be the sister of a poor young woman who had never given up hope that she would come back one day.

These are just some of the different characters whose stories – past and present – are wrapped around the story of the unknown child. The stories are rich and vividly told, the characters live and breathe, and it is so easy to be drawn in and to care deeply about what happens.

There are good and hard-working people who do their best to help their friends and neighbours; there are people whose hearts have broken but who know that they can do nothing but carry on; but there are also scoundrels and evil-doers who will take advantage of any situation for their own ends.

All life is here.

Rita and the man whose life she saved – a photographer named Henry Daunt – become close and they set out to solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

It is a story rich with the best kind of magic – magic rooted in nature and humanity.

Stories are told of Quietly, one of a long line of a family of mute ferrymen, who travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. He will rescue river travellers in distress and will either deliver them safely to one side of the bank if it is not their time to pass, or to another destination if it is ….

The river is always there, flowing through the story and its lovely prose.

The story moves slowly and it rewards slow reading. The writing is gorgeous, there are so many stories within the story to read and appreciate, and it is lovely spending time with all of the people who are part of those stories.

Every detail was right, every note rang true, and the world of this book felt utterly, utterly real.

Everything comes together beautifully and without a hint of contrivance.

It was a wrench to leave, and I can’t quite believe that I couldn’t go to the Swan Inn and listen to the descendants of the people I have been reading about telling tales of them, telling the tales of this book, telling tales of their own ….

I was spellbound from the first page to the last.

Jane lives on the Cornish coast, with one small brown dog and a ridiculous number of books. She blogs at Beyond Eden Rock.

Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River (Black Swan, 2019). 978-1784163631, 544pp, paperback.

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One thought on “Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (pbk.)

  1. Hm… I’ve only read her second book “Bellman & Black” and I liked it. Interesting. Thanks.

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