Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

 

Genre: Literary fiction

Similar to: A slower version of The Essex Serpent

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of literary fiction who don’t mind a dash of magical realism

Publication date: 17th January 2018

 

This is an awkward post to write. Initially, I LOVED Once Upon A River – like, sent out a tweet that the author liked about how much I was enjoying it – but once I got into the book…well… I got a little bogged down.

Let me explain…

It’s midwinter in England, in the old Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames. Stories are being told by candlelight by the village locals. Suddenly, a man bursts through the doors, heavily beaten and holding what appears to be a doll. But when the villagers try to help him, they realise that he’s holding the body of a drowned girl. They lay her to rest in a room on her own but hours later – a miracle! – she stirs and seems to come back to life. So starts a tale of intrigue, deception and magic, heavily laden with folklore.

So far so good.

But when the entire book is based around who is the girl  in an age when no-one could tell for sure, I felt like I was literally getting caught in the weeds.

Luckily, Once Upon A River is beautifully, magically written. The prose is lyrical, flowing, well… like a river. However, it also meanders about, with a huge cast of characters forming a number of slower moving tributaries that feed into the main narrative flow. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me but it took a while to understand. It also made the pace of the book s-l-o-w… really slow. Occasionally, the storyline was so stagnant I thought we’d veered off course into an oxbow lake. The gorgeous writing just about managed to pull me through the silt though.

The book is also incredibly atmospheric. I could literally see the characters (there’s pages and pages of descriptive text) even though they’re numerous and somewhat similar. Combined with the writing style this made the novel far more engaging but after a while, instead of gliding effortlessly through the prose I felt like I was drowning in it. I got somewhat swamped by the side stories and exhausted by the sense that I was treading water, waiting for the next thing to happen.

Oddly, the narrative picked up pace towards the end – to the point of feeling a little rushed – which I found quite jarring. I didn’t fully understand the ending (I sensed some kind of moral message but couldn’t quite decipher it) although I appreciated how the author tied all of the narrative threads together. I hated the idea that getting married and having a baby would make everything better though.

Overall, this was a very difficult book to review. I can completely see why some people (a lot of people) have given it five stars – it’s an easy book to immerse yourself in. However, I struggled with the slow pace and the lack of action. Whilst I quite enjoyed reading Once Upon A River, I didn’t love it – but I’m sure plenty of other people will.

Three “the words LITERALLY washed over me”s out of five.

Beautifully written and highly original but a little slow for my taste.

 

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Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

5 thoughts on “Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

  1. Ah it’s a pity that this ended up meandering around, because it does sound like it has a lot of promise, especially with regards to the prose. It’s odd that it suddenly sped up towards the end as well. Love your review though! (especially all your river-y references 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

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