Review of “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield

This Gothic story infused with magical realism takes place in Radcot, Oxfordshire, England, sometime not long after 1859 (the publication date of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which figures into a plot strand pitting science against belief). The center of the action is the Swan, an ancient inn known for the storytellers who habituated the place.

One night, on the winter solstice, a horribly injured man came into the Swan carrying what everyone assumed was the dead body of a little four-year-old girl. They both collapsed, and Rita Sunday, the town nurse and midwife, was called in to help. The fact that the solstice has traditionally been considered to be “a night of magic” in which “dreams and stories merge with lived experience,” fed into the impression that the girl was dead and then she lived; that a miracle had occurred.

The man turned out to be Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford, but the little girl’s identity was more enigmatic. She was mute and in shock, so they all tried to guess. Some thought she could be Amelia, the daughter of Anthony and Helena Vaughan. Amelia was kidnapped two years before at age two. Ransom was paid but the Vaughans did not get their daughter back. They hadn’t seen Amelia in two years, however, and children change a lot. Robert and Bess Armstrong believed the little girl might be their granddaughter Alice, age 4 and recently disappeared. The Armstrongs, however, never met their granddaughter, so couldn’t say for sure. Another local woman, Lily White, seemed convinced the little girl was her sister Ann.

There was even another possibility – at least, according to the villagers. They believed in the tale of a mysterious ferryman on the Thames named Quietly. The legend of Quietly was based on the story of an actual man named Quietly who lost his daughter in the river. He left in pursuit of her. A year later, Quietly returned the little girl to her mother, but wouldn’t enter the house. The mother saw that her husband wasn’t quite substantial, and understood that he was lost to her forever. Rita explained to Henry:

“…since that day any number of people on the river have met Quietly on the river. There was a price to be paid for the return of his daughter, and he paid it. For all eternity he must watch over the river, waiting for someone to get into difficulty, and then, if it is not their time, he sees them safely to the bank; and if it is their time, he sees them safely to that other place….”

Could the little girl be Quietly’s daughter?

All the interested parties stay absorbed in the identity of the little girl, and through that focus we learn more about the inhabitants of Radcot: their hopes, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths. The characters are well-drawn, with the females especially resilient. Much of their toughness comes from the stories they tell themselves to ease the pain of reality. Indeed, stories and their power are central to the plot.

The Thames, winding through the story as well as the landscape, also reflects the path of stories: sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, sometimes meandering, sometimes strong and overwhelming. The water can come in a trickle or a torrent, and as you follow its path, it can take you to other worlds.

The meandering Thames

Evaluation: This was a good book, although I thought the author could have stayed out of the text. (As an example: “And now, dear reader, the story is over.”) There was much to like, however, including well-developed characterizations; the spotlight given to small gestures, such as the joy elicited by a child grabbing the finger of her parent; and the revelations of changing light – so critical to artists from Impressionists to photographers, and in a deeper sense, to storytellers.

How do stories – even fictional ones – pull us into the light and show us the truth of a matter? Setterfield provides a creative and entertaining answer.

Rating: 3.5/5 (reflecting the fact that I’m not such a fan of magical realism; I think most reviews are more favorable)

Published by Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Review of “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield

  1. I love books that start with “Once Upon a…”!
    Great review!

  2. Beth F says:

    I really loved this — as you know. I agree, her the descriptions of the light and the river were wonderful.

  3. Lloyd Russell says:

    I read The Thirteenth Tale quite a few years ago. I thought it was okay. But I didn’t feel the need to read any more of hers.

    Lloyd (408) 348-4849

    On Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 11:01 PM Rhapsody in Books Weblog wrote:

    > rhapsodyinbooks posted: “This Gothic story infused with magical realism > takes place in Radcot, Oxfordshire, England, sometime not long after 1859 > (the publication date of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which figures into a > plot strand pitting science against belief). The center of ” >

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    Hm, I”m not big on magic realism or that time period so I might need to skip this one.

  5. Mystica says:

    Thank you for the review. I am not a fan of this genre but I do like to read reviews of books I will miss!

  6. Mae Sander says:

    Really intriguing book — good review, thanks.

    best… mae at

  7. Meg says:

    Intriguing — will definitely look for this one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.