‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield – a review

★★★★★  A lyrical fairy tale for grown-ups.

Author Diane Setterfield.

Set along the upper reaches of the river Thames in the late 1800s’, this novel follows the unraveling of a mystery that begins on midwinters night at the Swan Inn at Radcot. A stranger stumbles through the door, drenched and badly wounded, carrying a seemingly dead child in his arms.

The mystery deepens when the child, a girl, comes back to life. Here the narrative diverges and begins to follow the stories of three claimants to the child. The Vaughans, whose daughter Amelia had been kidnapped two years before; the Armstrongs, who believe that she could be their grandchild; and Lily White who is certain that the child is her sister Ann.

Rivers are often used as metaphors for stories and storytelling. This tale meanders, rushes, swells and flows by turns, carrying the reader with it. Setterfield dives into this trope, wallowing in evocative imagery, allowing the language of water to insinuate itself even into the minds of the locals at the Swan, ‘their thoughts eddied around, discovered currents within currents, met countercurrents.’ Much like the heath in ‘The Return of the Native’ by Thomas Hardy, here the Thames is omnipotent, a central silent character, affecting the lives of everyone it touches.

Setterfield draws a cast of subtle and sympathetic characters. Helena and Anthony Vaughan, the grief-stricken couple whose child has been stolen away; Rita Sunday, the local nurse who knows too much of birth and death to risk motherhood herself; Joe Bliss—father of 13—the gentle, sickly storyteller at the Swan and Henry Daunt, the injured stranger who topples into the inn as the yarn begins. They are so real and their histories so vivid that you cannot help but care about them.

The classic fairytale beginning, ‘There was once an inn’ invites us in. This opening promises magic and mystery, heroes and villains, good and evil and a happy ending—and it delivers. I would like to hear this novel read aloud. It conjures memories of childhood, the brothers Grimm, of sitting around the fire and being read to. It is cosy and comforting and utterly enjoyable.

My one concern on behalf of other readers is the neatness of that ending. I didn’t find it bothersome, there is enough sadness and misadventure along the way to balance it, but some might find the tying up of loose ends too tidy.

This novel has a lot to offer, a rich fabric woven of strong characters, good dialogue, plot twists and puzzles.

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