Once Upon a River: review

Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Simon & Schuster (December 2018)


It was a dark winter night. The solstice, to be exact. A man, face battered and bloodied, bursts in the door of the Swan Inn holding a small limp body. He collapses. When the village nurse Rita Sunday arrives to care for the man, she first checks the girl. No pulse, skin pale, pupils wide. Rita announces the poor girl dead–drowned in the river Thames, most likely–has her carried to an outbuilding to await burial, then turns her attention to stitching up the man.


No stranger to drowning deaths, Rita senses something is not right when she returns to tend to the child’s body. She tries to put together the circumstances which led to both the man’s injury and the girl’s death.

And then “the corpse opened its eyes”.

From there, Diane Setterfield’s latest novel Once Upon a River is off on a meandering tale of mistaken identity and longing and lost love.

What makes it all the more delicious is that the story pivots around the 600-year-old Swan Inn which is where one goes for storytelling in the village of Radcot. Each evening, villagers gather to listen to tales. Storytellers hone their craft at the Swan, coached and critiqued by other raconteurs, even arguing over ways to enliven the telling of a story. In her own telling, Setterfield mirrors those storytellers of long ago and the lilt of the dialog, the turn of a phrase, the twist and turn of the plot–all lend the novel a kind of fairytale charm.

So we have the story of Mr. Vaughan and his beautiful wife Helena, who mourn their firstborn, a daughter stolen away in the night only two years before. (Can the child possibly be the Vaughan’s lost toddler Amelia?) We learn of Robert Armstrong, a freed slave, and his crippled wife Bess–of their wayward son Robin and the granddaughter they’ve never met. (Or perhaps the girl is the Armstrong’s granddaughter Alice?) And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper who lives at the edge of the river’s flood plain in the Basketman’s Cottage, frightfully abused by a con-man and swindler and still grieving over the sister she lost those many years ago. (Is it possible that the little girl is Lily’s sister Ann?)

I liked The Thirteenth Tale, but with reservations. We won’t even talk about Bellman and Black. (You can read my review here.) But Diane Setterfield has created magic with River. If you love Gothic, if you’re drawn to enchantment and all that is delightful–it’s not one to miss.

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