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.

Audiobook Review: BELLMAN AND BLACK by Diane Setterfield

Format: Audio; 9 hrs, 40 mins
Narrator: Jack Davenport
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Released: November 5, 2013
Source: Review copy from the Publisher

One moment in time can haunt you forever.

Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born.


BELLMAN & BLACK was a curious book, and not at all what I was expecting. It was a haunting tale, but not scary, and not a ghost story in the traditional sense.

This book follows the life of William Bellman, beginning when he kills a rook with his slingshot as a child. Even though he blocks out the memory of that day in his mind, his killing of the bird follows him throughout his life and shapes who he becomes, yet he doesn’t realize it. The book is packed with minute details of Bellman’s life as a successful businessman, and the plot dragged from time to time. What kept me going was the mystery surrounding “Black,” a stranger who continually pops up at the funerals of Bellman’s friends and family.

I thought the author missed a great opportunity with Bellman’s daughter Dora to create a strong female character in the book. I was so intrigued by Dora and her situation that I wished she had a bigger presence. Though, after reading the ending, I can understand why Bellman took center stage.

What did I like? BELLMAN & BLACK contained stunning Gothic imagery. Black. Rook. Cold. Death. Funeral. Mourning. Dark. (This was not a happy tale!) The author’s vivid descriptions of rooks were amazing.

While I enjoyed the first part of the book, in the end I felt like I missed the point. The story was weak, and it lacked the spookiness and suspense that I anticipated. I did enjoy the gorgeous imagery and prose.

I listened to the audiobook performed by Jack Davenport. The narration was well done, and I enjoyed the voices of the secondary characters as well as Bellman.

Rating: 2.75 Stars

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