This is a beautiful story and I absolutely loved it. It’s definitely a long book and a slow burn—meandering like the Thames, here and there tumultuous, a swirling eddy of chaos; but at its heart, gentle, natural, and full of secrets that it never gives up in a flash of light or explosive epiphany. Rather, like the river, it ebbs and flows, and when the water draws back a bit, it offers a glimpse into its depths.
Once Upon a River blends so many genres and styles. It’s a bit of historical fiction, mystery, ghost story, magical realism, and romance told in what feels like an oral tradition and peppered with folklore and fairy stories and old wives’ tales about changelings and foundlings, with a pinch of Darwin for good measure. In this often sad tale, the line between the real and the fantastic blurs, and the characters often step over the boundary from their reality into the supernatural. But I think one of the things Setterfield achieves by blending all these genres into a nesting-doll narrative is the sense that magic really does live in the mundane, and because magic informs the world-building, many of the characters readily accept the miraculous in their everyday lives.
You’d think a story that packs so much might not work, but the main narrative arc is a straightforward mystery: an injured man brings a drowned girl into the Swan at Radcot, and the rest of the characters try to figure out who she is. It’s the other stories woven and layered within the main narrative that make this book so rich and complex, that enliven the story with their own little threads, to form a cohesive tapestry in the end. While the writing itself didn’t feel particularly magical to me, it was this structure that made the book stand out for me and supported many other aspects of the story, such as the character development. As I mentioned, many of the characters are storytellers themselves, excited and enchanted by magical happenings in the everyday. It’s often the characters’ voices and their own stories that move the main story along and provide pieces of the puzzle.
There are a lot of characters in this book but they were all unique to me and all felt alive. The antagonists were a bit cheesy and devolved into standard-issue villainous “I’m the evil villain bwahaha/Luke, I am your father” dialogue towards the end, but otherwise, I felt that I got to know the other characters on a personal level. The little girl and Quietly—their stories enchanted me and I really loved how they came together in the end. I also loved Robert Armstrong. Not just because he and his family bring the only diversity to the book, but because he was just so intelligent and kind and warm. Plus, I could really relate to his love of his family life as well as the magic he sees in nature. I loved his interactions with animals. I did feel a little uncomfortable with the way Robert’s diversity is written into the book—like, to make him “acceptable” he has to be educated and from a wealthy family. I know that the wealth is an important plot point because it led him to meet Bess, and the educated speech is the avenue for people to understand how good a person he is, but I would’ve liked the book to do something different here. As well, I was not happy at the author’s characterization of Robert at Bess’s expense. Her rape seemed to be downplayed while his own role in “saving” her from the humiliation became the focus of that trauma.
Overall, though, I loved this book and have already recommended it to my own family and friends. Once Upon a River is well worth the magical, genre-bending journey down the Thames, and makes a cozy tale for a deep dark winter’s night.
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Besides the actual book cover image, the two images included here were taken by yours truly on a little old film camera and developed by my husband, Joe. They don’t picture the Thames, but are from our hike along the South Downs Way – the river is the Cuckmere which meanders through Seven Sisters Country Park, and the above was taken somewhere between Lewes and Alfriston, just before descending the trail into Southease. Read the book to spot the reference this latter photo makes!