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Review: Once Upon a River

Updated: Sep 12

3/5 stars

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield (2018)

This book is a mythical fairy tale of magical realism. Suspenseful at times, whimsical at others, I really enjoyed the book as a whole, but thought the ending fell short of entirely satisfying (hence the 3 rating).


The Swann is an ancient inn on the bank of the Thames. While some bars are known for their card games, others for their music, and still others for

their art, the Swann is a storytelling bar. People come to the Swann to drink and to hear (&/or tell) a good yarn. One cold, dark, stormy evening, a stranger appears, severely injured and with what appears to be a dead girl of about 4 years old in his arms. The owner and patrons immediately see to the man, but the girl is not breathing, so they place her on a stone slab at the back of the inn. But the young girl comes back to life. And no one, including the stranger who rescued her from the river, knows who she is. So the storytelling begins, and the story spreads about the town until it reaches the ears of not one, not two, but three different families who have lost a young girl. All come to claim her. While some convince themselves she is theirs, others can see the distance in her eyes, and know she cannot be. The young girl doesn't speak, nor does she react differently to anyone laying claim to her, leaving the question open: Where does she belong?


This is a character-driven novel, so we learn the back stories for many of the villagers, as they orbit around the mysterious little girl. The plot unfolds slowly, but I didn't find it boring. Lots of revelations that gave me an "aha!" moment. And I really liked all of the main players. I just get a bit disappointed when the plot is wrapped up too quickly and conveniently at the end. But overall, a lot of fun. It was a great read for while I'm on vacation.

UP NEXT: Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green


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