Once Upon A River

By Diane Setterfield, An atmospheric tale of mystery, folklore, fact and fantasy

Disclosure: This book was provided by the publisher for review.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield was released yesterday, but I’d been looking forward to it pretty much as soon as I heard about it. Naturally, I was very excited to be approved for an advanced copy of the book. I read her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, over ten years ago at the recommendation of a roommate of mine who said it was her favorite book and kept a copy of it on her desk at all times.

Plot Summary

The book opens with an injured man entering the bar of the Swan Inn, an inn-slash-tavern in the small town of Radcot situated along the Thames — carrying a young girl, who appears to be deceased. The body is brought to the hospital to be inspected, but then a miracle happens and the young girl mysteriously reawakens.

Once Upon a River is about three families — the Vaughans, the Armstrongs and and Lilly White — who have each lost a young girl. When the story of the miracle involving a young girl at the Swan Inn begins to make it way from town to town, each of these families hope that this young girl is their own.

The story explores each of the claims on the young girl, the motivations and histories of these claimants, and many the townspeople who are drawn to the young girl and the mystery behind her apparent miracle.

The Swan Hotel in Radcot

Once Upon a River Book Review

Once Upon a River begins with a lot of exposition — characters, backgrounds, cities, locations and families, etc. and introductions of new plotlines — that fills the first quarter of the book. While this prelude is atmospheric and infused with magic, the question of “what exactly is going on here” takes a while to be answered since each chapter ends in a cloud of mystery and each new chapter seems to introduce a new set of characters.

Once the scene is set, though, the story starts to take shape in a way that sparked my interest and curiosity. Setterfield focuses more on storytelling than character development, but the storytelling is purposeful and imaginative enough to drive the book forward.

Once Upon a River is folk-lorish in that it exists in some nondescript sense of time and reality, and the writing has a sort of omniscient, dreamy quality to it. Moreover, it probes at a rather meta issue by exploring a staple characteristic of folk tales: the blurring of fact and fantasy.

Throughout the book, there are occurrences or circumstances that could possibly be explained away by science or could potentially be the sign of something fantastical. Rita, a nurse who fulfills all the medical needs of the town, and Henry, who is a photographer, provide the “scientific” and logical voice of the novel, seeking to explain these fantastical happenings in rational terms.

The book is not in a rush to divulge its many secrets. While the plot moves steadily forward, there are a lot of unanswered questions at any given time. I’d recommend getting comfortable with not knowing precisely where the story will end up, and just enjoying the ride. Ultimately, I found that it was well worth the time. I’ll also add that yes, the book has a concrete ending and does end up resolving most of its mysteries (as opposed just petering off which some atmospheric novels tend to do).

One last thing to note is that an interesting aspect of the story is that the settings and locations in Setterfield’s novel are largely real places — the towns, the churches and manors. I found those collisions with reality rather charming, enhancing the overall theme of fact and fantasy being intertwined in this book.

Radcot, the Devil’s Weir, Kelmscott, by Henry Taunt 1897

Read it or Skip it?

Once Upon a River is an engaging and atmospheric tale, and I’d strongly recommend it for people who like folktales and stories with subtle fantastical elements.

That said, this is a narrative where the characters often act in service to the folklore-ish story line, operating partially as plot devices, so people who prefer character-driven or more grounded stories may end up feeling a little dissatisfied.

This one was a win for me, though I’m guessing opinions will be split on this one, with some people really loving it and others finding it’s not to their taste.

Have you read this or are you thinking about reading this book? What’d you think?


Extras: Discussion Questions

  1. What is the role of the river throughout the book? How is it used, as either a literary device or a plot device?

  2. Of the people who had claims on the young girl, who were you rooting for?

  3. What did you think about the more fantastical elements of the plotline? Did they enhance the story for you or detract from the storytelling?

  4. What does Once Upon A River have to say about the act or activity of storytelling and how stories evolve?

  5. Were you satisfied with how the book's mystery unfolds?

  6. How did you interpret the ending of the story? What do you think really happened with the mysterious girl?