‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield

My Review (5 stars out of 5)


On the longest night of the year at the Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames, the regulars entertain each other with stories. But the storytelling is interrupted when a stranger bursts in carrying what appears to be a dead child. Summoning the help of local nurse Rita Sunday, it seems the little girl really is dead, however, as Rita watches over her, the child seems to come back to life. Meanwhile, the man who brought her to the inn lies unconscious, so the patrons begin to conjure up stories about who he might be and how he might’ve come by the child.

A mixture of history, folklore and fantasy, this is the first book I’ve come across by Diane Setterfield, but it certainly won’t be the last. Narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, the author weaves a tale of fascinating and diverse characters and seemingly unrelated events, as we begin the journey to discover the identity of the strange child. As it turns out, several families come forward to claim the girl, though clearly, they cannot all be telling the truth. How can the child have come back to life? Why does Lily White see visions of her own sister, and can the myth of the Ferryman really be true?

Once Upon a River is a delight from start to finish, each character coming alive for us and filling in his or her part in the story. It’s fair to say that the first few chapters introduce a great many new characters (which could be confusing) and the tale itself is certainly a long time in the telling but believe me – it’s well worth the effort.

An enchanting book, rich in myth and history.

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