Review: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Dear readers, I’ll tell you one thing: if I had as many real comments as spam comments, this blog would be quite lively! Alas, you are rather quiet consumers, operating -and hopefully buying books- in the background. Some real gems have made the reading list this year, and today’s book is a must-read for anyone who loves a well-told tale.

One winter solstice night, a badly injured man appears at the door of the Swan, the inn at Radcot. The small doll he seems to be holding turns out to be a girl, drowned in the river, but soon the girl who was dead becomes the girl who is alive again, stirring the imagination of the Swan’s regulars. Who is she? Could she be Amelia, daughter of the Vaughan family, who disappeared from her home two years earlier? Is she Alice, the granddaughter the Armstrongs never knew? Or might she even be Ann, long-lost sister of Lily White?

Ms Setterfield skillfully entwines the mystery of the girl’s identity with the fate of three families, each suffering from a secret that could break them apart. As in any good tale, the relationships provide the momentum: fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. The ratio of male to female characters seems well balanced, and no one particular person demands all of the readers attention.

I’m not usually a fan of big books and would probably not have picked this up at the store, even though the cover art alone is enticing. Fortunately, you cannot tell the size of a novel from a digital copy that takes mere moments to download. I “cracked open” the book and was immediately enthralled. The language is beautiful and the plot, like the often referenced river, carries the reader along, sometimes languidly, sometimes with a forceful pull that makes you realize at four in the morning that you’ve gone long past the point of “just finishing that chapter.” There are magical elements to the narrative that appear quite natural in the setting, and with these little hooks, the story will stay with you for some time. Hint: this book would make a great gift for a reader in your life…

“Once Upon a River” is published by Atria Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. You can bet that all opinions are my own, except where otherwise stated.

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