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Book Review: Once Upon A River: A Novel, by Diane Setterfield

a hand drawn color picture of a winding river against a floral background, top-down perspective

That feeling when:

A friend sends an “omg GET THIS!” text

A coworker sneaks over to your desk and says “I have to tell you what happened!”

A neighbor calls over the hedge “Have I got a story for you!”

When a story is coming, we draw breath. Out hearts skip a beat. Our ears perk up. What, we wonder, could this be about? 

We all know this magical, world-is-still moment. When we’re about to hear a new bit of gossip, anticipation fills us. The delight of victory may lie within any tale. Our veins may course with the vengeful grit of schadenfreude once the last word is told. A golden cloud of curious amazement may envelop us and never let us go. Especially eager are we to hear a tale told by a deft voice, a voice we trust as a skillful sculptor of time and words. 

Diane Setterfield is that sculptor. She is by far one of my favorite storytellers. I first came upon her when I found her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, on the “New” shelf of my local library. The book’s cover was a hand-drawing of stacked books. The mysterious title pulled at me. I picked it up, and I didn’t put it down. You may wonder why I’ve never reviewed it on this blog. I don’t know if I ever will. It almost means too much to me; I wouldn’t be able to convey my love for it with a mere blog post. It has become one of my most sacred texts.

So. Yes. When a writer ends up in your “holy canon” pile naturally you will read every word she writes (even tweets).

I’ve read and reviewed Ms. Setterfield’s second book Bellman & Black (I should say Dr. Setterfield – she’s a literature professor in England). Bellman & Black was an entirely different book than her first, although still steeped in the gothic genre she so expertly and modernly painted in The Thirteenth Tale. Once Upon A River is another deep dive into the setting of 1800s rural England, but again Setterfield delivers a completely different tale in a fully-fleshed and original narrative voice. In Once Upon A River, Setterfield —or her narrator— is telling us a story directly. She addresses us as “you:”

There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelm- scot was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialty. It was where you went for storytelling. 

Diane Setterfield. Once Upon A River: A Novel. 2018. Page 1. Paragraph 1.

Setterfield’s opening pages remind me of Dickens telling us to note something important in A Christmas Carol:

“The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. 1843. Page 1. Paragraph 3.

In Once Upon A River, Setterfield is like Dickens. She is almost sitting, candlelit, recounting the tale just for us. The effect is delightful. At the moment you notice she is addressing you, your heart skips a beat. You draw breath. “Oh,” you realize, “this is a Story.”

In Once Upon A River’s beginning pages, Setterfield gives the reader the lay of the land, namely the Swan Inn at Radcot and its inhabiting characters. She tells of how “Dreams and stories merge with lived experience” at the Swan, the little and ancient Inn on the river Thames that is known for its entertaining storytellers. It’s a place where “… the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and present touch and overlap.” We are warned, again, that in such a place “Unexpected things can happen.”

Before we hear the tale, we are to wonder, what really happened? “You will have to judge for yourself,” the narrator says. “…Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.” 

What follows is a tale of great victory, a story of sad schadenfreude, a whispered myth of innocent wonder. As the story continues, the narrator’s strong voice in the beginning of the novel expertly fades into each character’s mind; you feel like you’re hearing the tale flow from its very source – the characters themselves. The transition is as seamless as a calm river’s waters; It is smoother than a toddler’s cheek. I find myself woefully undereducated in the ways of great literature to properly give Ms. Setterfield her due. To a novice fiction-writer like myself, this amazing transition is magic. Diane Setterfield is a master storyteller. You should read her work.

That is the end of the book review. 

Now for my story. It starts with questions:

“What am I doing?” 

“Can I do this?”

“Why is it such a struggle? Maybe it’s a sign I should give up.”

Often these questions arise when I am sitting at my writing table.

I don’t know which part of my story we’re in. I may be at the beginning of my writing journey, where my first novel is the hardest hill to mount. This could be the middle, where after many, many years of trying to teach myself fiction writing I am in the dragging “this is where I give up” depths. The scariest option is this may be the end, where I finally close the book for good.

Great writing like Setterfield’s always sets me to thinking: Do I really want to write fiction? I’ve loved my years as a blogger and content writer, but I’ve struggled with my fiction project. I’m confident in my blogging skills. With fiction writing, not so much.

Diane Setterfield’s skill doesn’t discourage me. I’m OK with knowing I won’t likely ever get to her level. But will I ever get the confidence to forge forward with my fiction writing, at whatever level I can achieve? Will it ever be as natural to me as writing this blog post? Many days you can find me searching for yet more training, for more books on plot and character, for more tips and tricks. I’m always seeking out that magic formula that will bring all my adrift story skiffs securely ashore.

Like one of the Swan Inn’s drunken patrons, I stumble through the dark English woods with no lamp to light my way. I continue on because I’m driven to tell my story to a willing listener. Is this what all writers experience? Is this the typical flow chart of this program? I don’t know. As I said, I look for clues anywhere I can find them.

Like a miracle (but to be expected from this generous and wise author), Ms. Setterfield delivers one of those clues. Once Upon A River: A Novel is, at its very core, a beautiful, reverent ode to storytelling. On each page, the book declares our common love of telling and listening to stories. Ms. Setterfield is there, behind her narrator, whispering encouragement to me and any other hidden writer with the same dream. On Page 2 she writes:

“By force of repetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when the crisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what is more natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come to be applied to other tales?” 

And maybe that’s all the magic I need. 


Once Upon A River: A Novel

By Diane Setterfield 

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (December 4, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743298071
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743298070

Image Credits

Book Covers: Diane Setterfield and publishers
Tree in fog: Original photo, Christine Cavalier copyright 2019
Walk in the woods: Photo by Gabriela Palai from Pexels