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Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield | Book Review |

“There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all.”― Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

I had picked up reading or rather listening to this book on the Audible for the book prompt of the TBRCHALLENGE2020#6 a book picked up on the recommendation of a fellow blogger/reviewer. I have loved Diane Setterfield’s first book-The Thirteenth Tale and would recommend it to every book lover for its beautiful writing style and narration.

Title: Once Upon a River

Genre: Historical Fiction + Magical Realism

Publication: Simon & Schuster

Author: Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield is a British author who seems to be very inspired by the writings of several English writers like Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, etc as she seems to imbibe elements of their style in her story telling. The Thirteenth Tale was her debut novel in 2006 which garnered world wide accolades, including the 2007 Quill Award. The  book has sold three million copies world over in 38 countries. She lives in Oxford by the river Thames and has to her credit two other books – Once Upon a River and Bellman and Black.

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On a winter solstice night, a stranger staggers into the local inn holding what at first looked like a ragged doll or a puppet but was in fact a little girl. While the man collapsed and was tended to by the nurse, the little girl child lay dead in another room.

When the nurse gets around to checking her, she is drawn to the child most inexplicably. She checks her pulse even as she knows the answer. Something prompts her to put her fingers where the child’s pulse should be. And just like that, there is a flicker of a heart beat after a fashion and then the dead girl has life breathing through her.

“A curtain was drawn back in every man’s inner theater and their storytelling minds got to work.”
― Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

Everyone is amazed by the miracle and the story then spreads upstream and downstream in as many varied versions as the story tellers telling the tale but each account ended at the wonder of the dead child coming back to life.

There is a strange pull the girl exerts on everyone she comes in contact with. Each wants to be close to her, possibly even want to take her home if no one comes forward to claim her. The child appears lost in thought, not speaking and always searching out for something over the river.

Even as the nurse and the innkeeper are wondering what to do with the child, people start turning up claiming that the girl is their child/relative.

There is Lily White, housekeeper to the local parson who is convinced this is her sister Ann come back from the dead. Its another matter that she is 40 years old and no ways can this 4-year-old girl be her sister who has actually been dead for years. But no account of counselling from the parson or the nurse will have her believe that.

Mrs Helena Vaughn is convinced that this is her daughter Amelia who had disappeared two years ago and was never found. She takes the girl home with her even as her husband Antony struggles with her conviction. He has been trying to seek help for Helena as Amelia’s disappearance had led to a decline of their marital life. It had also adversely affected his wife’s health. But now she was a different person and he wondered if he dared to intrude on her happiness with the truth?

“A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.”
― Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

Robert Armstrong thinks that its perhaps Alice, his grand daughter who had been abandoned by her father and his son Robin and he intends to make things right by the little girl. He is puzzled by Robin’s behavior who appears to have sinister motives and all is not what it looks to be with him. He seems to have fallen into disreputable company and his continuous exorbitant financial demands on Robert have begun to take a toll.

And what of the other stranger who was pulled out of the river that night- Henry Taunt who turned out to be a photographer and who now seems besotted with the local nurse Rita Sunday. He buys a boat and builds a darkroom on it and then floats down the river as he plans on chronicling it in photographs to be printed into a book.

The nurse, Rita has thoughts of her own about the mystery of the dead girl coming back to life and she now tried several experiments and hypothesis to prove them true. She seems to be afraid of childbirth though she is very tempted to hold on to this little girl and bring her up as her own.

Together with Henry Taunt, she sets about to investigate the disappearance of Amelia for she believes that is what holds the clue to this girl’s identity. But then the girl disappears from the Vaughn’s house and even as everyone begin searching for her, the river decides to swell up and invade the village.

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.”
― Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River

One story that keeps popping up at the Swan is of the ferryman Quietly who comes to aid of those in fear of drowning on the river. (Its said that he gave up his life to save his daughters and since then has been punting this raft on the river.) If its their time, he pulls them on board his raft to cross them over to the other side but if its not, then he helps them to safety on this side of the river. Henry Taunt’s descriptions of who saved him from the river, appear to border on this tale and has the listeners shake their heads in disbelief.

Lastly, who is this girl? What is the mystery of the three other little girls as suggested by the claimants to this one? Why does she not speak and who is she searching for over the river?

Well I guess you will need to pick up the book to find out more about this tale.

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Lasting Impression on me:

Once upon a River is a tale that seduces it readers into following a tale as large and deep as the river itself, holding no one knows how many secrets in its watery folds. It begs for the readers attention even as the tale meanders as the river does, often leading to deeper fast flowing waters, encountering turbulence at some junctions while flowing placidly at others. Through its many twists and turns, it leads us down where it intends us to follow to see what lies beneath. And when the story unearths itself, its a tale like no other.

Diane Setterfield writes lucid languid tales that draws one deep into its literary arms, which then holds the reader snugly in the story telling. Character and events are depicted with conviction and flair, building empathy and bonding at the the readers end. The writer builds the scenes on a Gothic canvas, imbued with the landscapes of a rustic English countryside which has marshes, farmlands, village fairs and riverside inns.

I loved how she builds up the mystery over the identity of the girl, slowly unfurling each party’s reasoning for her to be theirs. Each of these stories adds to the richness of the tale and you cannot but help wonder with whom do you empathize more.

Every character is inlaid with intricate familial details and backstories that makes sense and adds to the wholesomeness of the tale. Even the villains and their villainy is brought about with a thorough charm and one looks forward to bringing them to their punishment.

I was totally transported into a Dickens-Austen era of story telling and thoroughly enjoyed that simplicity and Gothic embroidering of the tale.

My rating:

I would just have to say that I am not beguiled by the audio book version of story reading and it took away some of my reading pleasures . The books stretches over 50 chapters, some 9 hours long and its only at the 33rd chapter that my interest was kicked into high gear.

My rating is going to suffer from my hangup of the audio book and I am settling at 4/5 stars though it would have been higher had I read the book.

Linking up for the #TBRCHALLENGE2020 with Lifeofleo 

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Loved this review and would like to have an honest review of your book by me; please drop me a mail on with :

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Please note that I would require a physical copy of the book for the review and will take 100% advance of the fee.

You can check out my review of the Fantasy Fiction “The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shanon” , if you are a fan of this genre.

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8 thoughts on “Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield | Book Review |

    1. Oh yes! She has fast become one of my favorite authors and I am looking forward to digging into her 3rd book soon

  1. I’ve not read a book by Diane Setterfield before, but I’m fascinated by your description of this one, Shalz. And the quotes you shared make it even more tempting. Thanks for a great review.

    1. Oh you will be blown away- mark my words. She has such a haunting style of writing- I am glad I could pique your interest in her writing with my review Corinne 🙂

  2. I just finish Bellman & Black and loved that too! I’m sure this one would have been a 5 star book if Audible had worked well for you. So far I’ve read all Diane Setterfield’s books and all have been 5 star reads. Cannot thank you enough for introducing me to her.


    1. Aha! Thats my next read on Audible too 🙂 I might have introduced you to Diane Setterfield but its you who dug up her other books and now we are all reading through them. So thank you Love!

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