Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Enchanting storytelling: Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River, set in Victorian England

Both a Victorian-set historical novel and a delicately rendered adult fairy tale, Diane Setterfield’s third novel sits easily in both spheres.

Not only is it a beautiful story, but it’s an ode to storytelling itself, one knowingly structured similarly to the river in its title. Beginning at an old inn alongside the Thames, in a small town upriver from London, the tale follows a sinuous path, splitting off into tributaries that visit nearby residents and places before they rejoin toward the end.

On the night of the winter solstice in the year 1887, an injured man carrying what seems to be an overlarge poppet – a doll in peasant clothing – bursts into the Swan, a pub where locals rehearse their storytelling prowess. To the surprise of the innkeeper and her large family, the doll is soon revealed to be a lifeless young girl of about four. Their surprise turns to shock when she revives, and word about this mysterious happening quickly spreads.

As if that wasn’t strange enough, three families claim the girl for their own. To Mrs. Helena Vaughan, the mute, blond-haired girl must be her daughter, who went missing three years earlier. For Rob Armstrong, who farms pigs with his beloved wife and large family, she could be the grandchild whose existence they just discovered. And for the parson’s middle-aged housekeeper, Lily White, the girl is her sister, Ann, who she lost long ago.

And so we have a related set of mysteries to uncover as the stories wind their way downstream. Which family does the girl belong to, and what happened to the other missing girls?

Within this partly historical, partly fey setting, many characters come to life. In addition to the revived girl, there’s innkeeper Margot Ockwell; her husband Joe, who has a kind of wasting sickness; and their only son and thirteenth child, Jonathan, who acts differently than other children. The ferryman Quietly, who’s rumored to travel between earth and the afterlife, is a figure of local myth.

In a welcome switch, there’s no stereotypical insularity in the riverside English communities. Rita Sunday, once a foundling from a distant town, finds her nursing skills welcomed at the Swan. Full of scientific curiosity, she looks for explanations for why the girl had appeared to be dead. Helena’s husband is a native New Zealander, and while Rob Armstrong’s appearance (he’s black) initially alarms people, his kindness and noble bearing assuage their concerns.

All of their backstories are revealed at the right moment while the plot winds back and forth.  The language echoes the novel’s quasi-mythic atmosphere. Settle down into this enchanted corner of the literary world and linger a while, listening to a good, satisfying well told.

Once Upon a River was published yesterday by Atria in hardcover.  Thanks to the publisher for an Edelweiss copy; after I'd requested one, I was given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour, so I jumped right on.

With the tour comes a giveaway: Win 1 of 5 prize bundles of one finished copy of Once Upon a River and one Once Upon a River bookmark! Contest is open until 12/24.  Enter via the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Beautiful review! It really was a satisfying story. I just loved all of the characters and details.

  2. Thanks, Jordan! I wasn't sure how the mystery would turn out, but they were all solved in a way that made sense for the story.

  3. Great review, Sarah! Diane Setterfield is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I'm very much looking forward to her new book.

    1. It would be a great one to read over the holiday break! Hope you enjoy it.

  4. Lovely review and I can't wait to read this - Thank you Sarah!