Once Upon a River


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Diane Setterfield
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2021-01-23
    • Tags: #fiction #magicalrealism #historical #folktale #lush
    • Rating: ★★★★★
    • Idea richness: ★★★★☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


"There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all."

Magical realism folk tale set along the bank of the river Thames. Once Upon a River follows the lives of those who live along the river as they are turned upside down, collide, and transformed by the appearance of a drowned, mute girl who seemingly comes back to life.

Arriving at a pub in the dead of night, we follow three parties who claim the child (a wealthy couple whose kidnapped daughter has been missing for two years, a troubled woman with a hidden past, and a farmer tracking his prodigal son who may be the father), her nearly drowned photographer rescuer, and the villagers who swap the stories and gossip. Nothing is certain and the story continues to weave their stories ever tighter, exposing lies and forgotten truths as the future of the girl and all those she encounters forever alters.

"Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated. It was like a living thing that he had caught but not trained; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s."


"What’s the value of happiness that can only come at the price of another person’s despair?’"

  • Parenthood / Parents and child & Family
  • The cost of happiness
  • Life & Death
  • The power of stories
  • Nature vs nurture
  • Nothing stays hidden
  • Reality vs the Unexplained
  • Hope & new beginnings


11 months to go but I'm calling it now: one of my top books of 2021.

Stripped back you could describe Once Upon a River like a classic whodunnit. We have a mystery (the girl) hiding mysteries (who is lying and why? If she is not one of the missing girls, where are they?), a colourful cast whose many secrets entangle each other in an ever tighter web, storytellers trying to piece it altogether, and a finale in a flood where all is brought to light. Except instead of Agatha Christie gathering potential murders in a cottage around a corpse, Setterfield weaves together unlikely friends along a river spinning a story even as they are pulled into it. Less murder, more melancholy to hope and new beginnings.

Lush writing, ingeniously interconnected characters, and folk tale goodness oozing from every aspect of the narrative. What's not to like?

Things I loved...

  • Captures that folktale feel like nothing else.
  • The interweaving of the characters stories makes for ever deepening connections and the juiciest of dilemmas.
  • SHOWING NOT TELLING! Even with the heavy storytelling and over narration style, we learn about characters through their actions and others rather than slapping a label on them and than seeing none of what that means. One of the main characters is a black farmer in an all white town but instead of leading with that, we see how others judge him and how he has to react. Another character has Down's syndrome (I think) but is introduced and treated like any other kid. It's a brilliant way of building empathy and showing prejudices while working to slip around any bias and preconceived notions of our own.
  • Thematic cohesion at its finest. The narrator, the language, the characters, the glimpses of the unexplained: everything screams folksy and it's brilliant.
  • Open ending with your choice of whether to believe a touch of supernatural or rationalise.
  • Despite the Victorian setting, it has a certain timelessness about it especially if you are more used to rural or country settings.
  • Quietly the Ferryman is frickin' amazing and going straight into my Scrapbook.

Things I didn't...

  • I loved all the secrets coming out but some of the reveals might have bothered me in another book (SPOILER It was set up well but still, not admitting and somehow keeping secret to yourself that your daughter is dead? /SPOILER). However, I can't really complain because the story totally carries even the twists I might otherwise have found more outrageous.
  • I have to admit, I was expecting a bit more supernatural. Now while I love the balance the story ended up striking, it's something to bear in mind if you're expecting this to diverge firmly into the literally magical territory rather than magical writing and atmosphere.


  • "When the cold river doesn’t feel cold, that’s when you know you’re in trouble."
  • "...for on a summer’s day winter always feels like something you have dreamt or heard spoken of, and not a thing you have lived."
  • "Too much knowledge is a burden. When I was fifteen I sewed my first patch and I’ve worn one ever since. Of course, everybody thinks I’m ashamed of my eye. They think I am concealing my ugliness from them, when in truth it is their ugliness I am hiding.’"

Scrapbook Concepts

  • A stolen fortune-telling pig which may or may not actually be intelligent
  • ! A town of warring inns, each offering different specialties #locations
  • "It’s bitter, they complain; so bitter it bites you back, and besides, who wants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts?" --> Plants grown where army drowned
  • "The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy."
  • "And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap"
  • Born out of a corpse #fragments
  • "Every year the river helps herself to a few lives."
  • Quietly the ferryman. Helps drowning on the river: either to safety or, if it's their time, to the other side. Mute. All the men in that line. Went to death to bring back daughter and now is the ferryman #creatures
  • Island distillery on a river #locations
  • "At Ashton Keynes it splits into so many rivulets that every house in the village must have a bridge to its own front door;" #locations
  • Mrs Vaughan and the River Goblins --> Goblins living under the river in their own goblin world #creatures
  • "‘Listen to the sounds between the splashes. Do you hear? There are bubbles, very, very small ones that rise to the surface and pop. Those are the bubbles that carry messages from all the lost children." --> "She thought of the dead souls that are said to live in the river and wondered which ones were racing past her now, spitting at her." --> ! Have to catch the right one.
  • The Basketman
  • "an ash tree whose roots plunged into an underground river in which lived strange mermaids or naiads, called the Maidens of Destiny." #creatures
  • "He had the look he had when he was sinking. ‘There are stories you have never heard on the other side of the river … I can only half remember them when I am this side … Such stories …’" --> Going over to death to hear the stories, but can only partially remember on the other side and vice versa #fragments
  • "Think of that church you like so much, full right up of water, deep and dark and still." --> Building Full of water. No water outside #locations
  • Woman with a variety of eye patches to match her dresses and cover her all-seeing eye #characters
  • !Grandma with hives for dragon honey #creatures #characters #locations
  • "‘Great flying eels, picture that and you will have it about right in your mind’s eye. No ears and no eyes, that I could see. No scales, nor even any wings to speak of. Not a bit like any dragon I ever saw in a picture. Just long and dark and sleek and quick. They were twisting and writhing and the sky was so full of them that to look up at them all was like staring into a pan of boiling ink. Now how do you like my honey?’" #creatures
  • "What kind of a wishing well was it that gave you the thing you most wanted, without even wishing for it, and made you at the same time so painfully conscious of everything else you could not have?" #magic
  • ‘The witch’s child has eaten my shadow!’ --> "That the girl had no shadow, that her shadow had the form of an old crone, that if you looked too long into those peculiar eyes of hers she would benefit from your distracted state to slice your shadow from the soles of your feet and eat it." #creatures
  • A child with two reflections in the river, each one resembling the other in every detail #fragments
  • The storyteller is dying, and with them the stories #adventures #games