ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield {Review}


Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Release Date: December 4, 2018
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Rating: ★★★½


From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

On a dark midwinter’s 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 a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. 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.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.


Once Upon a River, a grown-up fairy tale that celebrates the art of storytelling. On a winter solstice night, 1800s, an injured stranger stumbles into an inn near the river, and in his arms is the body of a young girl. One moment she’s dead, and in the next — she lives.

The members of the small community are fascinated with the girl. Who is she? What happened to her? And more important, how is she now alive? Families come forward claiming her as their lost loved one, but the girl only focuses on the river.

The writing in this book was quite lovely and lyrical. The story itself moved at a languid pace like the meandering river at its heart. While I was very curious about the mystery surrounding the girl, there were parts where I felt the story was too wordy and my interest waned. Still, Once Upon a River is a unique read that will appeal to lovers of magical folklore.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

4 thoughts on “ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield {Review}

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