Once Upon a River is an absolutely fabulous read, and Diane Setterfield is an author that every fan of Victorian literature must get acquainted with.
I’ve enjoyed Setterfield’s writing since I first encountered her novel The Thirteenth Tale and was immediately sucked in by her Dickensian style. I would have to say, right off the bat, that Once Upon A River is closer in feel to Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman & Black, which I adored but which I know some readers found too slow and not plot-driven enough. Having said that, I think the beauty of Setterfield’s novels are that they are usually a slow build and greater emphasis is placed on creating an atmosphere and a feeling of warmth and curiosity in the reader than delivering a cheap, quick thrill. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, edge of your seat drama, then Setterfield’s catalogue might not be for you…but if you’re looking for a subtle page-turner full of magic and intrigue, then it certainly is!
I was a bit nervous going into Once Upon A River because I’ve found myself getting distracted from reading very easily in the last few months and I just wasn’t sure if something this meandering would be able to hold my attention. But (and full credit to Setterfield’s ability to weave a tale here), I was drawn in from the very first chapter and actually found myself reading with a flashlight in bed at 2:00am one night, much to my husband’s dismay. Again, this isn’t a traditional page-turner in the sense that a mystery or crime fiction novel would be, but Setterfield evokes this sense of wonder and astonishment in the reader that makes it impossible not to want to go along for the ride down the river Thames with her. There are a lot of magical and fantastical elements to this tale as well which made it feel very reminiscent of a fairytale, but at the same time, nothing about the plot was overly far-fetched or unbelievable, and I found myself buying into every explanation Setterfield put forth without hesitation. Even her most skeptical characters also come around to believing in some magic by the end of the novel, and it was nice to see that acknowledgement that sometimes aspects of life are beyond reasonable explanation and that is okay.
This novel also felt very similar to one of my absolute favourite novels of all time, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Reading Once Upon A River actually made me want to pick up all nearly 1,000 pages of Our Mutual Friend for the THIRD time, but then I thought maybe I should finally crack open the spine of Bleak Houseinstead. In any case, Once Upon A River uses a style that reminded me of Our Mutual Friend to introduce characters slowly and focus on them in great detail but only at times and in ways that were significant to the overall story. The cast of characters in Once Upon A River, although not quite as large as that in Our Mutual Friend, is vast, and it is very fulfilling to see how each character, even those most minor ones, ends up being important by the conclusion in some of the most unexpected ways. Setterfield is also very accomplished at, like Dickens, dropping small hints about a character’s beliefs or history throughout the novel so that the reader is able to string together some ideas about the role they will eventually play in the greater story. And, even the villainous characters like Robin Armstrong and Vincent Nash become somehow pitiable because they are so complexly articulated. I also appreciated that almost every character ends up with their own “Happily Ever After” because what Victorian trope is more wonderful than that, and I am particularly pleased with how things concluded for Rita and Daunt.
One final theme that I will mention is that of childbearing and child rearing, which is a huge focus in Once Upon A River. Naturally, given the fact that I am currently entering my third trimester and will be having my first baby in a few months, I found it pretty coincidental that so much of the story of Once Upon a River surrounds motherhood and what it means to carry a child, give birth to it and raise it. Obviously standards were very different in the Victorian era, so I’m sure I’ll have an easier time in labour than a lot of the female characters, but to hear them occasionally discussing what it feels like to be pregnant and how wonderful but also frightening that can be really resonated with me. There was also so much love and appreciation for children in the novel, and that was especially nice for me to read about because it got me very excited for the road ahead of me. I think any parents or soon-to-be parents would take a lot from the novel for this reason.
Once Upon A River is a must-read in my opinion, although I would probably recommend starting with Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which is a bit more traditionally entertaining and will give you a sense of her writing style before delving into something a bit more leisurely and Dickens-inspired.
❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart