Set in towns and villages along the River Thames, Once Upon a River is the story of many characters who are brought together by a girl. When she is brought to The Swan at Radcot by a local man, speculation begins to arise, but at the forefront is the question: who is this girl?. Seemingly dead, she comes back to life and thus the tale begins.
The idea of storytelling within the novel is reflective of the feel of this novel as a whole. It has the feeling of a local legend and the setting of the River Thames enhances this to perfection.
Admittedly, I live and have grown up in the area where the novel is set, so the setting felt very vivid to me and I loved the familiarity that this brought. However, Setterfield creates her setting wonderfully and I think any reader would get a feel for the magic of the River Thames in the novel, the towns nearby and the local people who have ideas about the river.
The language of the novel also creates the river in a very natural way, as well as bringing to life the characters that we meet. I particularly loved Rita, Henry and Margot in the novel, but every character was well-rounded and interesting, bringing with them their own element of the story.
The mystery at the centre of this novel surrounding the girl and who she is really drew me in. I became gripped by the plot of this book and was so connected to the characters that I became as invested in following their narrative arcs as finding out who the girl was.
I certainly went on a journey with this novel and my emotions were definitely brought along with me. My mind was put to the test as I tried to piece together the strands of the novel before the revelations occurred, but my heart was unable to not join in. I became attached to characters and felt for others, so there were moments of joy and sadness and much else in between.
Whilst the narrative unfolds, Setterfield explores themes such as grief, family, love, race, disability and more. Each of these themes was cleverly explored and having a cast of characters so well-crafted enabled Setterfield to do so.
Despite comparisons to other works of literature, what this novel reminded me of most was Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and a work of Charles Dickens, perhaps Great Expectations. It was the setting and characters that evoked Hardy’s work, but the plot of the novel (and one or two characters) recalled some of the Dickens novels that I have read. These comparisons make me love this novel even more because Setterfield brings together the aspects of Dickens and Hardy that I most enjoyed when I studied their texts at university. If you like either of these authors, perhaps this is a contemporary read for you? Alternately, perhaps this novel may encourage you to try Hardy or Dickens.
Overall, I think that Setterfield has created something wonderful through this book. The characters, setting and plot hit the mark perfectly for me and the flow and pace of the novel kept me engaged and immersed.
I highly recommend this novel and I’d love to know what you thought of it if you have read it.