Book Review – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Published: 4th December 2018
Genre: Literary Fiction


A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?


Every now and then you come across a unique and rather marvellous way of storytelling, and that is what you get with Once Upon A River. Beautifully written and filled with sophisticated nuance, this is an incredibly thoughtful book that brings together intelligent concepts with a quietly compelling plot.

From the outset, the author creates an immersive sense of atmosphere that really draws you in. The level of detail, the themes explored, characters with interesting backstories and sub-plots, all make it a memorable read. It has the feel of a classic. Maybe that is because…it is a classic.

Nothing defines this book more than the setting. The river Thames is a continual presence, alluded to in almost every scene, and often treated as a character in its own right. It is a setting that really drives the plot, sometimes bringing an added sense of calmness and tranquillity, and at other times a harsher, more oppressive tone.

There is also an emphasis on storytelling. This is established very early on, as the men who gather at the local inn (The Swan) compete to tell the best and most eloquent story. This is where the author’s knowledge and research into myths and folklore come in, and it plays a role throughout the book.

As for the actual story of this book, it begins when an injured man bursts into The Swan holding a young girl who appears to be dead. Miraculously, she survives and in doing so becomes the topic for discussion and gossip for months to come. Nobody knows who she is, but three different people claim her as their daughter or sister.

The plot contains a number of strands, or shall we call them tributaries? It moves at a relatively slow pace, but the quality of the writing kept me fully engaged and I admired how well developed the characters were. Another thing I liked was the contrast between each storyline and perspective, despite them all being inextricably connected to the mystery of the girl.

My favourite characters were Rita and Mr Armstrong. I found Rita so compelling, and everything she said carried a lot of meaning. Mr Armstrong is principled and compassionate, which made me connect with him quite easily. Of the other main characters, Lily was the only one I struggled to feel invested in.

The writing is so elegant, and while it is set during the 19th century, in many ways the story feels timeless. Almost every aspect of it is impeccably refined, and technically it is very hard to find any faults. If you love literature and the art of storytelling, then this is a standout example.

Trigger warnings

There are no graphic descriptions in this book, but it does touch upon some challenging topics including rape and child death. There are also some sexual references and racism towards Mr Armstrong.


This is quite simply a beautifully written story, and it is quite clear that Diane Setterfield is a magnificent talent. A really great read.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

10 thoughts on “Book Review – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

  1. Great review Stephen 🙂
    Agree the setting is excellent. At first I was a little confused by who all the characters were and what the story actually was, but I think there are many things to admire in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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