Book Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield (Bond Street Books, 2018)

In the late 19th century, the Swan pub sits on the banks of the River Thames. It is known for its storytelling, a place where people gather to share a drink, to tell a story. One winter night, solstice, a man bursts into the Swan, carrying a child in his arms. The child is dead, the man close to it. The local nurse is called to stitch the man back together. When she checks on the child, she confirms her death yet feels compelled to linger by the body. Moments pass. The child returns to life.

From here a year at the Swan and in its neighbouring community plays out. The resurrection of a small girl from death is indeed a story worth telling. The girl, around 4-years-old, doesn’t speak and doesn’t belong to the man who pulled her from the river. But whose child is she? Does she belong to the wealthy Vaughans who lost their own daughter two years previously to a kidnapping? Or to the enigmatic young man from the next town, Robin Armstrong, who may have forced his wife to take her own life? Or can she really be the long lost sister of Lily, the servant of the local parson who has secrets of her own? Every person who comes in contact with this girl seems drawn to her, including Henry Daunt, a photographer who happened to be on the river that night and into whose arms the river seemed to bring her, and the nurse, Rita Sunday, a woman who has always avoided children and connections of her own.

At first, this felt like a story with a lot of moving pieces; a lot of characters, a foreign setting, and I wondered if it would be too much. But Setterfield is careful and thoughtful as she unfolds the story. She dwells on details of setting and character. She gives us the history of the Swan and the family that runs this place so that we care for them, even as they are minor characters in a larger story. She introduces her characters steadily, showing us their backgrounds and motivations, even while not revealing too much so that we are pushed to keep reading. At the same time, it never feels like information is being withheld from us. There are moments that we see hinted at that certain characters don’t wish to look too closely at but this doesn’t feel dishonest from Setterfield but simply an exploration of humanity that she invites us to participate in. While there is a mystery at the centre of this story – who is this girl, really? – the book as a whole is really more about the characters and the way people tell stories about their own lives.

One thing that I greatly appreciated about Setterfield’s writing was that while it felt historically accurate, it never relied on creating a crude or overly harsh world. Sometimes it feels like authors are so eager to go for “authenticity” in their historical fiction that they focus too much on the harshness and dirt of life two or three hundred years ago. Setterfield doesn’t shy away from these things – we see the medical care that is lacking, we see the grime of every day life for the working class and the difference that the wealthy are provided – but there are also moments of comfort, of friendship. There are relationships that are true and loving because that is part of humanity too.

I also thought this was a great example of magic realism done well. Who the girl is and where she came from becomes a story oft told at the Swan and many of those offer a magical answer for a mystery the characters can’t explain. In the end, Setterfield provides answers but offers the truth to the reader loosely. Which explanation do you want to believe? Which is the most satisfying? I know not every reader does but I love magic realism when done well and I appreciated the way Setterfield offered both ideas. It also felt honest to the era of the novel and the setting of the Swan, a place of largely uneducated men attempting to understand and explain the world around them, a world dominated by the river they live and work on. Since people have existed, we have told stories to make sense of what surrounds us. This is one of them.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield”

  1. I totally love magical realism and wonder if many folks are simply reading bad attempts at it. Your review made me think about identity. Do we care more about which tribe we come from, or which we join? The idea of switching up babies in a hospital or a baby in foster care whose birth parents are unknown or finding a lost child who is too little to tell you anything about her parents — these stories scare the crap out of people. But what about who you are now, or where you are going, or which tribe you choose?

    1. Those are such big, interesting questions! I think that’s a huge part of adulthood – figuring out what “tribe” you want to be a part of. The girl in this story is too little to have much agency over what’s happening to her but there is an element here of the adults having to choose what kind of person they are going to based on their decisions for her.

  2. This sounds great – I don’t particularly love magical realism, but there are certainly occasions where it works for me, and it sounds like this might be one of them. I like what you say as well about it balancing the harshness of people’s lives with comfort and friendship. Over-bleak historical fiction is a real bugbear of mine, and I’m glad this book avoids that.

    1. I think this is the sort of magic realism that could work for people who don’t like magic realism! It’s not overwhelming and the book offers it as an idea – or you could choose to accept the more prosaic explanation. I feel the same about overly bleak historical fiction where everyone is awful and filthy and does young.

  3. I remember reading this book years ago but I can’t remember how I felt about it. I enjoyed your review because I’ve been there myself – thinking ‘this book has way too much going on’ but then continuing to read as it all falls into place. Great review!

    1. Thank you! It’s so nice when that does happen, isn’t it? Did you ever review this? I’m sure I added it to my TBR based on someone’s review but I have no idea whose!

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