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?
An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.
Huge thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to review Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. I absolutely adored the Thirteenth Tale and I am so delighted to share my review here as I absolutely loved this fascinating portrayal of the way that stories work and the way that the dawn of science changed the way that we think for ever. Anne messaged me with this tour details when I was marking exam scripts and I was so excited, I almost bit her hand off with a definite yes!
If you read my blog at all, you’ll know that I love a bit of a tale where it sends me diving off into a tailspin of reading around the subject of my novels as I’m blogging and Once Upon a River was definitely one of the most fascinating in terms of what I found. It’s so interesting to uncover tales of the River for yourself and I found myself exploring takes of mudlarks, of foundlings and of smuggling that all enhanced my enjoyment of this read and added richness to it after I’d finished reading it too.
Diane Setterfield is a really talented writer who really transports you to another place and time – if you love an immersive read, you’re in for a real treat: this is top-class fiction with strongly realised characters and an emotional punch – If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. It’s one of the most human and engrossing novels I’ve ever read and I really found it hard to ‘decompress’ from the world that he recreates for us after finishing it.
I love the way that there is a skilful balance of beautifully evoked settings and sweeping ideas to contemplate – I really felt that I was being spoiled as both were there in abundance in this book. Rita is someone who you will follow keenly as you uncover more about her fabulously realised character and her choices will make you think closely about what you might have done in similar circumstances in this world if you’d also been born into it.
I hate giving spoilers about such an engrossing read; instead, I’ll praise Diane Setterfield’s deft characterisation that has us pulled into this narrative and experience these gripping stories in the making. This is storytelling at its finest – making us see the narrative not as a list of events but a succession of relationships, decisions and human frailties that accumulated in change, loss and upheaval for these people. I learned a lot about exactly how human decisions affect the lives of so many people
Diane Setterfield is equally impressive in conjuring up the riverside setting as she is in recreating the complexities of the characters and relationships in the novel and I feel like this gives this novel an epic feel – I kept wondering who I’d cast if I was making a film of Once Upon a River and imagining it coming to life on the big screen was hugely satisfying. I loved the intriguing tale of Robert Armstrong and can’t wait for you to uncover his story for yourself. If you love an epic tale with fascinating characters and a real insight into a period you might not know much about you’ll absolutely love the setting of this book and if you love the human side of history you’ll definitely be caught up in this very human tale of truth and consequences just as much as I was.
I absolutely loved the evocative description and lyrical language in this novel and got swept up in the story so much so that I didn’t want to leave. The portrayal of human relationships and their consequences in Once Upon a River another aspect of this novel that really stood out for me and I loved the way that I could envisage The Swan and the way that these characters’ lives intersect inside its walls. This is a uniquely beautiful book that will make you ask yourself probing questions about the reasons we make decisions and if we are being as honest with ourselves as we think we are at some of the critical times in our lives…
I can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s an intelligent, immersive and atmospheric read that really draws you in and holds you tight until you’ve turned the final page. Treat yourself to a copy
Isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous, by the way?
Writer On The Shelf
Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale, was published in 38 countries, sold more than three million copies, and was made into a television drama scripted by Christopher Hampton, starring Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave. Her second novel was Bellman & Black, and her new novel is Once Upon a River. Born in rural Berkshire, she now lives near Oxford, by the Thames.