Historical Fiction Mystery

Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield

26 July 2020
Once Upon a River Book Cover Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
4 December 2018

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. Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless. Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone's. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known. Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.


Once Upon a Thames (River) is a beautiful story of mystery, family and community, wonderfully coloured with the art of storytelling, not only in relation to the novel itself but the celebrated pastime of locals in the story at The Swan in Radcot near Oxford. The historic Thames is the anchor in the story and the theme of water flows throughout the novel. A river that one moment “helpfully turns a wheel to grind your barley, the next it drowns your crop.” A river that sees the silent ferryman ‘Quietly’ perform his mysterious duties.

“He sees to it that those who get into trouble on the river make it safely home again. Unless it is their time. In which case, he sees them to the other side of the river.”

The Swan was recognised as a magnet for storytellers, and their greatest story was just about to unfold when a stranger staggers through the door of the inn with a dead girl in his arms. Both soaked as though from the river, the child appeared drowned and the man now unconscious were both cared for by Rita. Rita is a most fascinating character, a nurse whose experience and pursuit of knowledge competes if not surpasses doctors. A woman whose rational thinking and scientific explanation is fascinating to follow and connect with. Her logical brain is puzzled with the young dead girl.

“Wherever you looked at her, this child was unmarked, unbruised, ungrazed, uncut. The little body was immaculate. ‘Like a doll,’ Jonathan had told her when he described the girl falling into his arms, and she understood why he had thought so.

That death had made no mark on her was strange enough, but nor had life, and that, in Rita’s experience, was unique. A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page.”

Rita’s examination is stretched to wonderment when the child awakes, although, she will not or cannot speak.

Several families have mysteriously lost young girls and they believe that the four-year-old child is their daughter or sister. A scenario that suggests some supernatural power, or several lying opportunists in pursuit of their own dark machinations, or grief playing with minds that can’t accept the loss of a loved one. Even those that don’t claim the girl to be their own, have a strange attraction to her and a mix of emotions that brings forward the desire to have a child.

The story towards the resolution of the young girl’s fate and the incidents that struck such loss into several lives is compelling and filled with vivid imagery that casts enthralling insights into a landscape and activity during the Victorian era. Diane Setterfield draws on historical facts to add authenticity to the narrative and one such fascinating subject was expressed through one of hte main characters, Henry Daunt, as the photographer capturing the images of people and places, and he lives on a riverboat where he operates his studio. The real Henry Taunt captured 53,000 photographs most of which now reside in Oxford.

While I loved the idea of the story, I felt that the narrative delayed at times which lost momentum by backtracking or side-stepping with material that wasn’t necessary. I was amazed at times and frustrated at others. This is a thought Ceecee and I had while we read this as a buddy read. I would recommend this book and always great to be reading Diane Setterfield.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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