Book Review: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4, 2018 (expected)

Series: n/a

Genre(s): fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, mystery

Format & Length: e-book, 480

Source: Netgalley

Find on Goodreads

Purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAYThe Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about how we explain the world to ourselves, ourselves to others, and the meaning of our lives in a universe that remains impenetrably mysterious.

A body always tells a story—but this child’s was a blank page.

Rita reached for the lantern on its hook. She trained its light on the child’s face.

‘Who are you?’ she murmured, but the face said as little as the rest of her. It was impossible to tell whether, in life, these blunt and unfinished features had borne the imprint of prettiness, timid watchfulness, or sly mischief. If there had once been curiosity or placidity or impatience here, life had not had time to etch it into permanence.

Only a very short time ago—two hours or not much more—the body and soul of this little girl had still been securely attached. At this thought, and despite all her training, all her experience, Rita found herself suddenly in the grip of a storm of feeling. All the old rage at God—for not being kind, for not being fair, and finally for just not being—swept her up all over again and she felt tears of anger on her face. She took the child’s hand in hers—the perfect hand with its five perfect fingers and their perfect fingernails—and the words fell out of her that she had not known were there:

‘It should not be so! It should not be so!’

And that is when it happened.

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After having read and loved Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, I was very excited to discover she was coming out with a new book and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. But once I got the approval from Netgalley for the advance copy, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation. What if Once Upon a River didn’t live up to my expectations?

Well. I am happy to report that it did. Setterfield really has a way with words, creating a story that combines historical fiction with fantasy and folklore centered around the Thames river. Much like the river itself, it’s a bit meandering, taking its time to build up the world and the characters before weaving them together. Although I typically favor faster paced, plot based stories, this one really worked for me because of how much I enjoy the author’s writing style.

Once Upon a River is a story about stories. Each story stands on its own while also intersecting with the others, with one central mystery pulling them all together. The atmosphere within the pages is palpable and the Thames becomes a character unto itself. There is plenty of suspense and tension, but this is largely character driven and therefore a slower read to be savored and not skimmed.

Ultimately, I still prefer The Thirteenth Tale but Once Upon a River was spellbinding. Recommended.

*Thanks to the publisher for providing an arc of this edition via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

  1. Hallo, Hallo Nicole,

    I recently read Once Upon A River myself – I was on the publisher’s blog tour – I am happily trying to sort out whose read the novel between November + December, as it was my first introduction to Setterfield’s narrative style. One thing I find interesting is no one so far has mentioned their love of Rita Sunday which to me was the stand-out character and reason I felt anchoured into the story itself.

    You did make a wicked good observation regarding this is a ‘story of stories’ – for me, there were a few parts which felt a bit too slow and I did wish in some ways the tightness and tauntness of the opening bridge had been maintained throughout the story rather than feeling like we were wandering down river a piece in several places without a rudder connecting everything betwixt and between.

    I still intend to read her previous novels – it will be interesting to find out which one of hers becomes my ultimate favourite. I’m glad I spent time in this one and of course, one of the bonuses was getting to listen to a portion of the audiobook! Did you get to hear the narrator for this one? Ooh my goodness! Her voice nailed the atmosphere of the novel and worked brilliantly to illuminate the characters – she is aces at voices and genders!!

    I’d love to see if you had similar or differing thoughts to mine; kindly drop by if you have a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re most welcome, Nicole!! I’m planning to re-visit you – I appreciated the fact you dropped by my blog. Hmm… I’ll have to keep a ready eye out for other fans of Ms Sunday!! Thanks for letting me know others love her like I do!! Ooh, definitely! I hope you’ll love the audio as much as I did – I do need to hear it in full at some point as her voice is just intoxicating. You don’t want to stop hearing her narrate the story!

        Liked by 1 person

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