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Review: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River

Title: Once Upon A River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Genre: Fiction, General Fiction, Magical Realism
Page Count: 480
Published by: Atria Books
Date Published: January 8, 2019
You can find a copy here: Bookshop.org


On a cold wintery night, in a traditional English village pub, where people gather to pass the time through the telling of stories, a badly injured man crashes through the door carrying a dead girl and promptly collapses. Sometime later, the girl comes back to life, incapable of speech.

Now the question becomes whose daughter is this – is she the lost daughter of Helena and Anthony Vaughn who was tragically taken one dark night? Is she the granddaughter of local farmer Robert Armstrong or maybe the lost sister of the local recluse Lily?

A tapestry of stories, and the interconnectedness of all the villagers, are woven together as painful truths and secrets are revealed in a sweeping story that combines science, folklore, suspense and romance in a 19th century English village.


If you’re a fan of historical fiction set in cozy 19th Century villages with a multitude of slowly connected characters, a lackadaisical pace, and a touch of gothic, you’ll happily curl up with Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon A River. If, however, character driven stories with meandering, poetic, and somewhat ethereal writing, are not your thing, this might be a tough chew.

This is definitely something to consider before picking up Once Upon A River, because it demands you to be unhurried, methodical, and relaxed. Being a Diane Setterfield fan – The Thirteenth Tale is likely my favourite novel of all time – I was ready. I thoroughly enjoy her grandiloquent, ghostly writing that waxes and wanes through almost intangible threads that will eventually connect together … but even so, this one was a tougher read for me. Maybe I was being impatient and not giving it its due time or maybe it was that the subject matter is often harrowingly dark and disturbing but I did find myself having to work to stay connected.

Having said that, I still very much enjoyed this. Diane Setterfield is a masterful storyteller that I put in leagues with Madeline Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern. Her extensive ability to create rich, atmospheric tales is simply superb. Once Upon A River is gothic, ghostly, dark, and often a bit disturbing, but is balanced with a strong current of hope and brevity of the human spirit, simultaneously showcasing the worst of humanity and its heartbreaking kindness. The mysteries here are slowly revealed and the interconnectedness of the characters slowly builds together to a very satisfying result. While her ornamented style of writing comes down to personal preference, her superior talent of characterization is undeniable.

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