Book Review: Once Upon A River

As always, if you think you might want to purchase anything I link to, please consider using my affiliate links. Thank you!

On a dark midwinter night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath, and returns to life. Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation?

The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Three families are keen to claim her. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.


This is my book review for Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

I intend to use the ***ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.

This book was such a lovely departure from what I normally read. Yes, it is speculative fiction, but in a gentle sort of fairy tale way. This book is proof that the supernatural can be the catalyst for a story while not actually really being the point of the story. 

Atmosphere / Writing Style

It is a fairy tale story with a few, underrated, supernatural elements. The tone is slow but steady. Like the river that plays such an important role, the story meanders along its course at times only barely moving and carrying random bits of character notes and plot along with it while at other times it is quick and powerful changing what we thought to be true with a splash… and there are other times when things float by seeming no more important than anything else… it is only later that we remember a name, a snatch of detail, the mention of dragons…

The atmosphere is dreamlike and shifting. The language is dense at times but very beautiful. The descriptions are deep and while I wouldn’t say the writing style is lyrical, the book does tend to lull you into a state of calm contemplation. Even when exciting incidents occur, and there are a few, they are told in a detached way… it is never lost on the reader that we are being told a story about events that have already sorted themselves out. 


The way that groups of people, especially the drinkers at the tavern called The Swan, are described is unique… a mix of groupthink, Greek chorus, and nameless members of the crowd all fulfilling their part in the unfolding drama. Some readers might find this narrative choice frustrating but these occurrences are broken up with more straightforward third person narration about the main cast of characters.

And… there are a lot of characters. Every character is giving an intro and while this slows down the narration, even more, those character bits are relevant and ultimately helpful. This isn’t a story about any one (or two or three) person(s). It is a story about a series of connected events along the river (itself a main character). Therefore the information we are given about the players needs to be given to us in mini info dumps along the way because that adds context and, by the very nature of the book, there won’t be very much any actual character arcs or growth. This is a story about a few important things happening to many people, with a few notable exceptions.

Those “notable exceptions” or characters with their own stories laid into the bigger story, are not introduced right away but don’t suffer much for being late to the party. I’ll probably say it again, but, this book is worth pushing through because once characters like Armstrong and his wife Bess show up, things get dramatically more interesting. 


As already stated, this is a slow burn. It takes quite a bit for things to get going and the only real action happens in the last 20% of the book. Thankfully the mystery has been so fully entrenched early on that there is enough tension to carry us through. One character is unconscious for what feels like forever in the beginning and even when he first wakes up, the reader might be exasperated that not much happens for a while… but the payoff is worth the wait.

I can’t go too in detail with the plot for fear of spoilers, but I will say that little bread crumbs left along the way in the first hundred pages or so do circle back and show a level of writing skill that might be overlooked by speed readers or those rushing toward the conclusion. 

Entertaining / Would I recommend it?

Yes. But. Again, it is a slow burn and needs a slow read. This is not the sort of book you want to barrel through. It demands to be read slowly and carefully. I know I wanted to see how it would all shake out and I was not disappointed. Another thing: a few bits of the ending were predictable, but the book in no way suffers. This is less a mystery waiting to be solved by reader and character alike and more a recounting of mysterious events against a backdrop of interesting characters and the ever-flowing river.

I’m not sure if this book has any universal truths to teach us (there is one outdated patriarchal norm that is reinforced) or any deep symbolic truths to give us. And yet, I was moved by the story, rooted for the characters (the white vs black hats were easy to discern), and was glad for the ending. 

I can see where this book would not be the cup of tea desired by many… but I for one enjoyed it and am glad to have read it.  

Note: Warning, this comes close, very close, to a spoiler:

If you have read the back of the book, you know there is some question about the death of a girl. Dead… and then not dead. This could be interpreted as a mistake or the work of something supernatural. While this is hotly debated for a while with many characters coming firmly down on one side of the debate… the question itself seems to recede away as other events take precedence in the story… never mind how she got here, we must figure out who she is and thus who she belongs to. There are a few other fantastical allusions, tall tales told around the fire sort of things, and as I read I began to relax into thinking I knew what sort of book this was. And then on page 299 (total pages, 460), there is a brief and totally nonchalant mention of dragons in a village just up the ways. “Intermittent dragon infestation” is the actual phrase… which is a lovely phrase, to begin with, but what it implies is hilarious coupled with the fact that it is just an errant thought of a character who then returns to eating his lunch. If these dragons play any sort of role in anything, I will leave it to you to discover but I LOVED the moment where I was forcefully reminded that I am, indeed, reading a fantasy book -even if I had sort of forgotten that fact- in the most offhanded sort of way. 

So yes, I would recommend it because I highly enjoyed it… but I know that for many the slow pace and the dense writing style might be a turnoff.

Why This Book?

It has been on several lists of “best of” books for a while now… and after an impassioned reading of the back blurb at a recent book club meeting, it was chosen as August’s fiction focus. 

One last note:

Part of the blurb on the back, (clearly written by someone who wants you to buy this book) reads as follows:

“… a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined.”

One of my fellow book lovers made the point that that sets the bar pretty high in terms of expectations, but I actually think that it is correct. This book has all those elements and while your enjoyment might vary, if you are predisposed to like books like this one (books that walk the line between regular fantasy and magical realism), you will probably quite enjoy it. 

I know I did.

*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This? Why did I read *This* book?

Thank you for your support!

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments or send me an email.

Published by kayliametcalfe

Queer,loudmouth,skeptical-agnostic-pagan,book addict,coffee lover,wine drinker, SAHM,writer,editor,producer,podcaster. -She/her

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: