Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

Review by the Wild Book Spy






Hello! It's your favourite Book Spy back in the old armchair!Ready to talk about another wonderful book for you.


This ambitious tale by Diane Setterfield successfully threads together many genres in an intriguing mystery that, like the river it mirrors, twists and turns with effortless ease and skilful flow.

Part folk tale, part myth and part gothic thriller it is carefully bound together by the author’s acute observation of the relationships and desires of her characters which quickly captures the reader’s imagination and engagement.


The narrative style is both lucid and immediate. Although I first thought that the sequential introduction of so many characters in the early chapters might make the story feel too scattered – in fact, each thread is beautifully depicted in memorable individuality creating a carefully woven fabric that culminates in a satisfying and cohesive whole.


Magic realism slides and sparkles its way through the dramatic action without undermining the essential truth of the real, human relationships depicted and explored. Mystery abounds through the unfolding of the dramas portrayed, partly through the distorted gossip and vivid folk tale imagination of those who attend the pub, which is the springboard from which all the subsequent action of the story gently flows or gushes like the ever-changing nature of the river so close by, and partly through the author’s expert patterning of her plot. The central question that drives the majority of the action - concerning the identity of the child found in the river at the very beginning and the impact of that on the community that it affects - is both tantalizing and compelling.



The river meanwhile is omnipresent, reflecting the many moods and events of the tale – both giving and taking life. It is a river well-understood by the author and she describes its impact on those who live within its influence and authority in engaging detail. The complex motives and actions of the lives of her characters are borne up and swept along by the very waters that define them. Beautifully described in carefully measured metaphor, the river, links all those who live near, and the actions that bring them together,

“ The sky had fallen into Lily’s yard. Its dawn-grey had come to earth and lain itself over grass, rocks, paths and weeds. Clouds floated at knee height. Lily stared in bewilderment. She lifted her gaze automatically to the river, but it was gone. A flat silver stillness lay over everything. Here and there a tree emerged out of it and was reflected on its polished finish along with the sky.”


In the end, much is resolved, though there are aspects left for the reader to ponder, as the tale is brought to an unexpected but truly satisfying finale.


A fabulous read!

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