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Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

book review of once upon a river by diane setterfield

Once Upon A River

Diane Setterfield

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed…more.

My Rating:

A dark night during the midwinter solstice, a lost child, a riverside inn known for weaving tales…infused with folklore, this novel from the author of The Thirteenth Tale is an ode to the river Thames and the way it steeps the culture of those who live on its shores.

Once Upon A River starts with a thrilling event that quickens the heart, but it is as slow and meandering a tale as the river it is set around. “The river does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination…Instead it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions,” observes the narrator of Diane Setterfield’s third novel. The sparking start, where a man with a bashed in face kicks in the door of a riverside inn with what appears to be a doll. Only, it’s not a doll, but a child’s corpse, who suddenly, and in inexplicable ways, returns to life.

What follows is a slowed pace, a delicate and precious unwrapping of who this little girl may be; the novel, like any river, spreads into three plot tributaries. One relates the tale of a prosperous mixed-race farmer with a wayward adult stepson. The second follows a wealthy landowner whose marriage to a once lively, wild woman has now thinned due to the kidnapping and disappearance of their two-year-old daughter. Lastly we meet the fearful, half-simple housekeeper for the village parson.

All the while we have the outliers, a woman trained in medicine who grows attached to the child and the man, in as slow and murky a way as the water flowing past them everyday. The story takes shape around claims each of these parties makes on the little lost girl. Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, which is filled with ghosts, incest, a country manor, murder and an evil twin, Once Upon A River is a milder and much more wholesome, with characters who are more shades of white and pale grey than black.

The wholesomeness of this tale harkens to the folklore and whimsy of life on a river, tales that are woven into the mud and marsh and born into the blood of the occupants dwelling nearby. It’s quaint and charming, meandering as calmly as the setting, the book is by no means a page-turner. Instead it takes its time, build the suspense, the wonder inside the readers head as they try to uncover all that might unfold. Who really is this child? Where did she come from?

There is plenty of heart, and happy endings with even the sprinkling of ghosts finding rest by the end. More classic and fashioned after Dickens than the darkened, chilling themes of Brontë, Once Upon A River may not be newly imagined, but it is simple, delicious and familiar.

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book review of once upon a river by diane setterfield
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