Book Review: ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield

A dead girl that’s not dead anymore and three families coming to claim her.

The book that started my love for magical realism.



A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?



Title: Once Upon a River

Author: Diane Setterfield

Publication: December 4, 2018 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Magical Realism

Target audience: Adult

Book Depository| Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon DE

Disclaimer: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this e-ARC of Once Upon a River.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Rating: 🌵🌵🌵🌵 ½

It took me a complete month to finish this book, but I love it with all my heart.

This book is a little bit of everything: historical fiction, suspense, fairy tale, magic.

A dead girl is found. Suddenly, she’s alive but does not speak a single word. Three families come and claim her as their own. Nobody knows who’s right.

The child was snatched from party to party, like a doll amongst jealous children.

I can barely find the right words to write my thoughts down but I’ll try.

This is basically a story about telling stories. Once Upon a River‘s centre is The Swan, an inn where telling stories is a regular occurrence. Throughout the book, I felt like I was sitting in the Swan, listening to this story and the sounds of the river.

When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it […].

Diane Setterfield gives us a fairy tale with just the right amount of magic and beautiful writing. Never have I heard a river being described more lovely. It is a total slow-burn though, and not for people that need constant action.

[…] but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightily perverse not to follow it.

No, this book is focused more on the characters, and there are more than enough of them. From the beginning to the end, we’re being introduced to a lot of characters, and while at first they don’t seem to be that important to the plot, everyone adds something to the story and makes it feel more real.

These subplots can be confusing at times, and you’ll never have any idea where the story is heading right now, but Diane Setterfield weaves them together in an elegant and lovely way. It feels as if the story is slowly unfurling, revealing more and more with every word.

En route the river does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions. Its changes of direction are frequently teasing: on its journey it heads at different times north, south and west, as though it has forgotten its easterly destination – or put it aside for the while.

Another thing I loved about Once Upon a River are the little touches of magic. Every time something supernatural occurs, you could also explain it with science. You’ll keep asking yourself if it was really magic or not. The book is walking the line between reality and the supernatural and you alone must decide what to believe.

Dead children do not come back to life.

I’d love to recommend this to everyone, but you definitely have to have patience. If you’re in the mood for a heartbreaking and character-driven fairy tale, Once Upon a River is the book for you.

And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?

Have you read this book? What do you think? Are you a fan of magical realism? Let me know down below in the comments!

One thought on “Book Review: ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield

  1. Pingback: Yearly Wrap-Up | My 2019 in Books – jessythecactus

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