Book Review: “Once Upon A River”

once upon a river

My mother gave me a copy of “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield for Christmas last year.

It’s rare that I don’t choose my own books.

Sometimes I do a book swap with one of my friends, but our tastes are so similar we could easily share a bookshelf.

I think there’s something fun about seeing what other people think I’ll like, instead of going straight for the same things over and over again. My mum and I are quite different in that regard, so this was a really interesting choice from her.

(I will also say it was nice to get a brand-new book for a change. Personally most of my collection have been picked up second-hand, and while that’s a great way to discover new and interesting authors, I really miss the new-book smell.)

So I had multiple reasons to be excited to start reading this book!

“Nobody really knows how the tradition of Storytelling started at the Swan.”

“Once Upon a River” is a historical fiction novel set during the late Victorian period in Radcot, a town on the banks of the River Thames.

It’s an expansive novel, where the author carefully weaves together four or five different plotlines featuring a huge number of characters.

I found the novel incredibly interesting and entertaining.

Setterfield has done a lot of research, and it shows. She has a really skilled approach to her narrative, allowing the reader time to get to know all the characters and conflicts without overwhelming you with too many at once.

A young girl and an injured man are washed up on the banks of the river. They are rushed into the nearby inn, the Swan.

Then something really dramatic happens. The little girl, certified pulse-less and presumed dead by local nun-turned-midwife Rita, wakes up. More confusingly, Henry Daunt, the injured man who rescued her from the river, has no idea who she is.

The strange little girl cannot speak, and immediately the people of Radcot rally to find her family. She is quickly claimed; first by Anthony and Helena Vaughn, a rich couple in mourning who believe her to be their kidnapped daughter; then a handsome young widower, Robin Armstrong, who seems the more likely parent, but may not be all he seems.

Other observers see in her their missing sister, or simply the child they never had.

“Something was going to happen.”

What follows is a twisty narrative as Rita, Henry, and Robin’s father Robert each attempt to discover the truth. Although it will soon transpire that some would prefer it stays hidden . . .

You might expect the story to be complicated and hard to follow. But though it meanders and loops back upon itself, it ultimately keeps itself on course — not unlike the titular river!

I could never predict where each storyline was going, but the idea that “something was going to happen” is repeated throughout the novel. 

It’s reflected in the way that everything ramps up, along with the water levels, to a thrilling conclusion.

The book’s title, “Once Upon A River”, is fairy-tale-esque, reflecting by the fact that this is very much a novel inspired by storytelling itself, and how legends and myths develop.

It’s interested in seeing the same tale play out from many perspectives, and seeing how seemingly unconnected lives and events can impact others.

It’s very long, but unlike some novels which approach the 500 page mark, never felt like a chore to read!

For more book reviews from the “Friend” team, click here.

Click here to buy “Once Upon A River” on Amazon.

Kirsty Souter