Once Upon a River - Diane Setterfield

January 8, 2019

5 / 5 Stars


Perfect book about love, loss and telling stories.


On the banks of the River Thames, tales are being told at the Swann Inn, an ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. Regulars and travellers alike gather, as they have for hundreds of years, for storytelling is their favourite pastime.



On Solstice night in 1887 a new tale is born with the arrival at the Inn of an injured stranger and in his hands a dead child. In the middle of night the child rises. Is it a miracle, is it magic? Who does she belong to? Several people appear to have claims on this mysterious child but why all so convinced she is theirs?


This is a slow read but in a good way. This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, to be read slowly and enjoyed preferably on a lazy Sunday in Winter. It’s full of folklore, magic and a lot of mystery. It’s incredibly atmospheric and maintains suspense throughout. There are twists and turns to keep you guessing.


The characters are excellent, from Rita the ‘unofficial’ nurse, a perfectly written female character, to 'Quietly' the Ferryman, a mythical figure that patrols the river and rescues the unfortunates who fall foul of the river... then decides who will remain, or who will cross to the other side. These are the standouts, but there are so many that are expertly brought to life and made so interesting. The villains of the piece were also excellent, perfectly creepy and unlikable.


The author does well by not just using the Thames as an effective setting, but cleverly ensuring it acts as a character itself. It’s the perfect setting for this story, and the author manages to convey the benefits, the trappings and a psyche of a close knit community, all tied to the river in some way.


I had enjoyed the author’s previous novels and this one did not disappoint. I enjoyed the mixture of history, fantasy and magical realism. There was perfect contrast of the old and the new, folklore versus fact, in an age of increasing enlightenment, especially scientifically. A beautiful novel about stories, life and death ...and the bit in between. A great start to my reading year.

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