In One Word

In One Word, Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is…

once upon a river

  • First published in 2018 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
  • Format: Paperback – Published in 2019 by Black Swan
  • Reading Time: 6 slowflowing days


  • Selected this one for the New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge as it’s one I got for Christmas. I loved The Thirteenth Tale so I was rather looking forward to this one. This book starts on a dark midwinter night in an inn famous for its storytelling. That night, the denizens get an incredible story to tell their friends and family – a wounded stranger bearing an apparently dead child. Hours later, the girl comes back to life but she still can’t give any answers as to who she is or where she comes from. Things are further thrown into confusion by three families who have all lost a little girl coming forward to claim her as their own.
  • Lovely, rich world building of a world that both feels real and feels slightly sideways of reality. All readers would instantly get a clear image of the old inn and the old stories still being told about the place. These stories include rehashes of old war tragedies and the myth of a mysterious spectral saviour who helps those in peril on the river. Above all, you’ll get a marvellous image painted of the river itself, both beautiful and foreboding at the same time. Atmospheric is definitely the word.
  • Undeniably gripping premise. For the first two chapters, I could get through it pretty well. It wasn’t very fast moving but it was moving at a good steady pace. The characters were introduced in the right places and were given plenty of fleshing-out right away. I particularly liked Rita, a woman ahead of her time who managed to use her skills and gain respect on her own terms, and the mystery of the little girl coming back from the dead was very well set up. It took a while to get going but it looked promising.
  • Good writing style but I think I might have been better listening to this as an audiobook. It would have been wonderful to let the beautiful words wash over me but, unfortunately, when coming to the book for the first time and trying to see the plot through all the narrative flourishes, it can be a bit distracting. A case of style over substance in places.
  • Going back in time all of a sudden threw me for a loop. As soon as the premise had been set up, the book diverted into developing the large collection of side characters. All of them were interesting in their own right but it muddied the waters of the story too much and I had no idea whether it was going to start flowing again or stay stagnant. By the time it got going again, I was losing patience with it.
  • I think I would have liked it if the side characters had been introduced more gradually rather than being thrown on the reader like that. All are fascinating from the farming family searching for the result of their wayward son’s liaison to the wealthy young mother still desperately hoping for news of her missing daughter after two years to the humble parson’s housekeeper haunted by a traumatic past. They each could have had their own book but, all thrown together in quick succession like this, it’s just too much.
  • So, I cracked and looked up a plot summary because I was sick of the book not moving forward. It’s what I always do when I’m struggling to get through a book but that might have been what ruined it for me. I didn’t find anything that made it worth continuing. No big dramatic climax or big plot twist like The Thirteenth Tale, anyway.
  • Hard to admit it but I’m going to have to stop reading this too. This was a tough decision to make. The book actually started to pick up when I decided I’d had enough but I think looking up the plot to see if it was worth continuing ruined it for me. I don’t think the ending is worth persevering for and my readerly eye is wandering. So, this is another disappointment from an author whose previous works I loved but not a final farewell. I might come back to this book at another time and might enjoy it more. For now, it was just a case of wrong book at the wrong time. I’m giving it three stars because I know I could enjoy this. I just didn’t this time around.

Goodreads Rating (DNF at 26%): ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

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