Once Upon A River By Diane Setterfield – A Review

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: 17th January 2019

As atmospheric openers to a story go, this one is up there with the best. I read this book over a series of dark, wet, cold autumn evenings and I can’t think of a more perfect setting. So settle down with a blanket and pour yourself a flagon of ale (I’ve no idea, ignore me) and I’ll tell you all about this brilliant book….

London, late 1800’s and there are any number of Inns along the Thames to drink in. However each Inn has its own specialty shall we say….if it’s music you’re after head down to The Red Lion, if gambling’s your penchant then it’s The Stag that you need and if brawling is in your bones then you need a visit to The Plough. If however, you are in need of a story, a tale to pass a lonely mid winters evening then The Swan is the place for you……

The Swan is best known for its tall tales and attention stealing stories. Both landlord and regulars alike have a fondness for spinning a good yarn. But one night the need for a story is cut short when in through the door bursts a story of their very own, playing out in front of their wide inebriated eyes….

When a tall injured stranger appears at the Inn carrying a girl in his arms, the landlady of The Swan, Margot Ockwell has to act fast. With the poor girl in the mans arms clearly no longer living she is taken into an adjoining room whilst the man has his injuries tended to by local nurse Rita Sunday. When Rita performs checks on the young child, drawing on her medical knowledge, she feels instinctively that something isn’t right. Although the child has no pulse and isn’t breathing, Rita can’t help but feel that her body is too perfect. No signs of injury, and none of the usual signs of death by drowning, despite the girl being soaked through and stinking of the river.

When the child opens her eyes, swivels her neck and begins to breathe, Rita calls her medical knowledge into question and The patrons of The Swan have their own miracle story to tell…..

So it was after the impossible event, and the hour of the first puzzling and wondering, came the various departures from The Swan and the first of the tellings. But finally, while the night was still dark, everybody at last was in bed and the story settled like sediment in the minds of them all, witnesses, tellers, listeners. The only sleepless one was the child herself, who, at the heart of the tale, breathed the seconds lightly in and lightly out, as she gazed into the darkness and listened to the sound of the river as it rushed by….

The story of how the man William Daunt a photographer, and the as yet unknown girl unfolds from there. Several people come forward to lay claim on the young child for various reasons and the mystery of exactly who she is and which family she belongs to entrances the locals.

Meanwhile nurse Rita is still troubled by her initial assessment of the apparently dead girl and how on earth she can now be a living breathing creature.

We find out the histories of the families laying claim to the girl. Is she the daughter of the Vaughans, the grandchild of the Armstrong’s or the sister of Lily White?….Henry Daunt, Rita Sunday and the landlady of The Swan also feel an affiliation with the child. She seems to have a strange effect on everybody, including the patrons of the inn and her inability to tell anyone who she is and where’s she’s been makes her all the more mysterious.

This book is such a perfect autumn read. Steeped in mystery and intrigue based on real old fashioned folklore. The river Thames is almost like a character in itself.

I love thinking back to a time when the simplest of everyday occurrences as we know them now, were explained by way of stories and myths. The things that people believed in and held true are fascinating. This whole story is interweaved with separate stories, fairytales, folklore and the like.

It has a mystical and slightly supernatural edge which keeps you off kilter. Not all is as it seems, and isn’t that what makes a great story?

The characters in this book are fascinating. Each of them with their own worries and troubles but all of them connected, however tenuously to the young girl. There are a couple of very strong male characters who I adored. Henry Daunt and Mr Armstrong are perfect gentlemen and their relationships with the women in their lives are beautiful.

Of course not all of the characters are so lovely, and that’s what makes for such a compelling read.

Steeped in mystery and intrigue, this story sweeps you along with the current of the river. Beautiful prose and a privilege to read. I will most certainly be heading to Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale very soon.

Thank you as always to the publisher for the review copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to be part of this amazing blog tour.

See you soon

Bookish Chat xx

4 thoughts on “Once Upon A River By Diane Setterfield – A Review

  1. Great review, agree that edge of the supernatural makes the story more compelling. I like it that you point out the two strong (and good) male characters, sometimes novels can lack these because they focus on the strong females 😉


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