Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A compelling tale.

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“The river lapped and the boat rose and fell, and a far-off little voice called without cease for its parents from the depths of the goblin world.”

Setterfield’s tale begins at The Swan, a pub at Radcot, the hub of storytelling on the Thames. The regular drinkers are disturbed by the sudden entrance of an enormous man, bleeding and injured from the mouth, cradling a puppet in his arms. After the man collapses dramatically and the puppet is retrieved from his arms, the locals discover to their horror that he had been holding the drowned body of a little girl. Mysteriously, the girl soon revives, yet seems incapable of speaking. The novel then follows the story of three different characters, all laying a claim to this girl. One is a farmer searching for the missing child of his son, a grandchild whom he only recently discovered existed. Another is a landowner whose wife is sinking into madness after the disappearance of their daughter. The last, a confused middle-aged woman haunted by disturbing nightmares of her drowned younger sister from decades before, is convinced that her sibling has returned.

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Described by Jim Crace as “magical, bewitching story telling”, Once Upon a River beautifully interweaves the fairytales and magic of our childhood with the folklore of our history. The opening line – “there was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source”- immediately grips us, playing on our memories of story-telling techniques used by tales from our childhood. Arguably, this opening is slow as it doesn’t immediately dive into the action, however, I thought Setterfield’s unhurried way of introducing the scene created a comfortable setting which reflected the warmth of a pub and the ease of listening to a story – an important theme in this novel.

Once Upon a River shows readers the comfort of community living and the friendliness between its characters. The protagonists’ unwillingness to battle each other over who this girl really is illuminates a respect for the happiness of others. None of the characters can really be described as unfeeling or evil. Undeniably, the pages are haunted by the cruelty of others, yet this is hardly included in the plot, only really reflected in the memory of certain protagonists. Due to the persistent calmness of each persona and the mellow tone the story carries, some may find it difficult to engage with. However, I found this to be more interesting because it encourages the reader to focus on the finer details of those involved in the plot, to pay more attention to the movement of the story. I cannot deny that I found a favourite character – Mr. Armstrong, the kind farmer with beautiful manners: “as other living creatures understood very well, he was the gentlest of souls. However, my sympathies lay with the Vaughn’s, the couple whose child was kidnapped – I was rooting for the girl to be theirs throughout the novel. The passages describing their grief are difficult to read, particularly Mr. Vaughn’s distress at how the event affected his wife mentally. Although every claim to the young girl was bitterly unhappy, this one had to be the worst due to the inferences that the Vaughn’s were a truly happy family, unlike the other cases where the child was kept a secret from their family or mistreated.

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Every chapter revolves around a particular character’s side of the story. Each one ends on a slightly mysterious tone, which made me keen to read on. For this reason, I would definitely describe it as a gripping page-turner. If you love reading books such as Rebecca or Jane Eyre then I would recommend Once Upon a River; it carries the same tone of mystery, as well as real and raw human emotions. The characters are vividly alive, a driving force behind the plot, although some readers may become impatient with the lack of action. Nevertheless, it is a beautifully written and warming tale.

Eleanor Braham

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