Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield


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“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles

“A beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing.” —M.L. Stedman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans

“This is magical, bewitching storytelling...High prose expressed with rare clarity, story for the unashamed sake of story, a kind of moral dreaminess...well, the list continues to grow.”—Jim Crace, National Book Critics Circle winner and author of Being Dead and Harvest

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743298070
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 52,979
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.


Yorkshire, England

Date of Birth:

August 22, 1964

Place of Birth:

Berkshire, England


Theale Green School, Berkshire (1975-1982); B.A., University of Bristol, 1986); Ph.D. in French, 1993

Read an Excerpt

Once Upon a River

  • 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 Kelmscott 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.

    The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still. These different elements had been harmonized by the thatch that roofed them, the lichen that grew on the old stones, and the ivy that scrambled up the walls. In summertime day-trippers came out from the towns on the new railway, to hire a punt or a skiff at the Swan and spend an afternoon on the river with a bottle of ale and a picnic, but in winter the drinkers were all locals, and they congregated in the winter room. It was a plain room in the oldest part of the inn, with a single window pierced through the thick stone wall. In daylight this window showed you Radcot Bridge and the river flowing through its three serene arches. By night (and this story begins at night) the bridge was drowned black and it was only when your ears noticed the low and borderless sound of great quantities of moving water that you could make out the stretch of liquid blackness that flowed outside the window, shifting and undulating, darkly illuminated by some energy of its own making.

    Nobody really knows how the tradition of storytelling started at the Swan, but it might have had something to do with the Battle of Radcot Bridge. In 1387, five hundred years before the night this story began, two great armies met at Radcot Bridge. The who and the why of it are too long to tell, but the outcome was that three men died in battle, a knight, a varlet, and a boy, and eight hundred souls were lost, drowned in the marshes, attempting to flee. Yes, that’s right. Eight hundred souls. That’s a lot of story. Their bones lie under what are now watercress fields. Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it, crate it up, and send it to the towns on barges, but they don’t eat it. It’s bitter, they complain, so bitter it bites you back, and besides, who wants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts? When a battle like that happens on your doorstep and the dead poison your drinking water, it’s only natural that you would tell of it, over and over again. 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? Five hundred years later they still tell the story of the Battle of Radcot Bridge, five or six times a year on special occasions.

    The landlady of the Swan was Margot Ockwell. There had been Ockwells at the Swan for as long as anyone could remember, and quite likely for as long as the Swan had existed. In law her name was Margot Bliss, for she was married, but law was a thing for the towns and cities; here at the Swan she remained an Ockwell. Margot was a handsome woman in her late fifties. She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes. She was the daughter of the last landlady, and her grandmother and great-grandmother had run the inn before that, and nobody thought anything of it being women in charge at the Swan at Radcot. It was just the way it was.

    Margot’s husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble, twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thames emerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more than a patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. They were born small and ailing and most of them were goners before they were grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened, until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and often before they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthood shorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, their noses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.

    At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labor, Joe had left Kemble to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. From Kemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewhere in the world, but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightily perverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty, stopped for a drink. The frail-looking young man, with floppy black hair that contrasted with his pallor, sat unnoticed, eking out his glass of ale, admiring the innkeeper’s daughter, and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be among people who spoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his head since boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Once upon a time . . . came out.

    Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had brought him to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. With a bit of practice he found he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk, or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling as well as any actor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told as much of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited close attention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by. Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan, he knew how to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellbound too, and she him.

    At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He won first prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He came home grey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and, at the end of it, got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.

    “I don’t know . . .” her mother said. “Can he work? Can he earn a living? How will he look after a family?”

    “Look at the takings,” Margot pointed out. “See how much busier we are since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don’t marry him, Ma. He might go away from here. Then what?”

    It was true. People came more often to the inn these days, and from further away, and they stayed longer to hear the stories Joe told. They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.

    “But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in here and admire you so . . . wouldn’t one of those do better?”

    “It is Joe that I want,” Margot said firmly. “I like the stories.”

    She got her way.

    That was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, and in the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twenty years they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot’s thick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom young women with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now. One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller and one a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but in every other respect they were so like their mother that the drinkers could not tell them apart, and when they returned to help out at busy times, they were universally known as Little Margot. After bearing all these girls there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them thought her years of child-bearing were at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, their only son.

    With his short neck and his moon face, his almond eyes with their exaggerated upward tilt, his dainty ears and nose, the tongue that seemed too big for his constantly smiling mouth, Jonathan did not look like other children. As he grew it became clear that he was different from them in other ways too. He was fifteen now, but where other boys of his age were looking forward impatiently to manhood, Jonathan was content to believe that he would live at the inn forever with his mother and father, and wished for nothing else.

    Margot was still a strong and handsome woman, and Joe’s hair had whitened, though his eyebrows were as dark as ever. He was now sixty, which was ancient for a Bliss. People put his survival down to the endlessness of Margot’s care for him. These last few years he was sometimes so weak that he lay in bed for two or three days at a time, eyes closed. He was not sleeping—no, it was a place beyond sleep that he visited in these periods. Margot took his sinking spells calmly. She kept the fire in to dry the air, tilted cooled broth between his lips, brushed his hair, and smoothed his eyebrows. Other people fretted to see him suspended so precariously between one liquid breath and the next, but Margot took it in her stride. “Don’t you worry, he’ll be all right,” she would tell you. And he was. He was a Bliss, that’s all. The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy.

    It was solstice night, the longest night of the year. For weeks the days had been shrinking, first gradually, then precipitously, so that it was now dark by mid-afternoon. As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.

    Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.

    The drinkers gathered in the Swan that night were the regulars. Gravel diggers, cressmen, and bargemen for the most part, but Beszant the boat mender was there too, and so was Owen Albright, who had followed the river to the sea half a century ago and returned two decades later a wealthy man. Albright was arthritic now, and only strong ale and storytelling could reduce the pain in his bones. They had been there since the light had drained out of the sky, emptying and refilling their glasses, tapping out their pipes and restuffing them with pungent tobacco and telling stories.

    Albright was recounting the Battle of Radcot Bridge. After five hundred years any story is liable to get a bit stale, and the storytellers had found a way to enliven the telling of it. Certain parts of the tale were fixed by tradition—the armies, their meeting, the death of the knight and his varlet, the eight hundred drowned men—but the boy’s demise was not. Not a thing was known about him except that he was a boy, at Radcot Bridge, and he died there. Out of this void came invention. At each retelling the drinkers at the Swan raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell, you are allowed to take liberties with it—though woe betide any visitor to the Swan who attempted the same thing. What the boy himself made of his regular resurrection is impossible to say, but the point is raising the dead was a not infrequent thing at the Swan, and that’s a detail worth remembering.

    Tonight Owen Albright conjured him in the garb of a young entertainer, come to distract the troops while they awaited their orders. Juggling with knives, he slipped in the mud and the knives rained down around him, landing blade down in wet earth, all but the last one, which fell plumb into his eye and killed him instantly before the battle had even begun. The innovation elicited murmurs of appreciation, quickly dampened so the tale could continue, and from then on the tale ran pretty much as it always did.

    Afterwards there was a pause. It wasn’t done to jump in too quickly with a new story before the last one was properly digested.

    Jonathan had been listening closely.

    “I wish I could tell a story,” he said.

    He was smiling—Jonathan was a boy who was always smiling—but he sounded wistful. He was not stupid, but school had been baffling to him, the other children had laughed at his peculiar face and strange ways, and he had given it up after a few months. He had not mastered reading or writing. The winter regulars were used to the Ockwell lad, with all his oddness.

    “Have a go,” Albright suggested. “Tell one now.”

    Jonathan considered it. He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed tight with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

    “I can’t!” he exclaimed when he recovered himself. “I can’t do it!”

    “Some other night, then. You have a bit of a practice and we’ll listen to you when you’re ready.”

    “You tell a story, Dad,” Jonathan said. “Go on!”

    It was Joe’s first night back in the winter room after one of his sinking spells. He was pale and had been silent all evening. Nobody expected a story from him in his frail state, but at the prompting of his son he smiled mildly and looked up to a high corner of the room where the ceiling was darkened from years of woodsmoke and tobacco. This was the place, Jonathan supposed, where his father’s stories came from. When Joe’s eyes returned to the room, he was ready and opened his mouth to speak.

    “Once upon a—”

    The door opened.

    It was late for a newcomer. Whoever it was did not rush to come in. The cold draft set the candles flickering and carried the tang of the winter river into the smoky room. The drinkers looked up.

    Every eye saw, yet for a long moment none reacted. They were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

    The man—if man it was—was tall and strong, but his head was monstrous and they boggled at the sight of it. Was it a monster from a folktale? Were they sleeping and this a nightmare? The nose was askew and flattened, and beneath it was a gaping hollow dark with blood. As sights went, it was horrifying enough, but in its arms the awful creature carried a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and slickly painted hair.

    What roused them to action was the man himself. He first roared, a great bellow as misshapen as the mouth it emerged from, then he staggered and swayed. A pair of farmhands jumped from their seats just in time to grab him under the arms and arrest his fall so that he did not smash his head on the flagstones. At the same time Jonathan Ockwell leapt forward from the fireside, arms outstretched, and into them dropped the puppet with a solid weightiness that took his joints and muscles by surprise.

    Returning to their senses, they hoisted the unconscious man onto a table. A second table was dragged so that the man’s legs could be rested upon it. Then when he was laid down and straightened out, they all stood around and raised their candles and lamps over him. The man’s eyes did not flicker.

    “Is he dead?” Albright wondered.

    There was a round of indistinct murmurs and much frowning.

    “Slap his face,” someone suggested. “See if that brings him round.”

    “A tot of liquor’ll do it,” another suggested.

    Margot elbowed her way to the top of the table and studied the man. “Don’t you go slapping him. Not with his face in that state. Nor pouring anything down his throat. Just you wait a minute.”

    Margot turned away to the seat by the hearth. On it was a cushion, and she picked it up and carried it back to the light. With the aid of the candles she spotted a pinprick of white on the cotton. Picking at it with her fingernail, she drew out a feather. The men’s faces watched her, eyes wide with bewilderment.

    “I don’t think you’ll wake a dead man by tickling him,” said a gravel digger. “Nor a live one either, not in this state.”

    “I’m not going to tickle him,” she replied.

    Margot laid the feather on the man’s lips. All peered. For a moment there was nothing, then the soft and plumy parts of the feather shivered.

    “He breathes!”

    The relief soon gave way to renewed perplexity.

    “Who is it, though?” a bargeman asked. “Do anyone know him?”

    There followed a few moments of general hubbub, during which they considered the question. One reckoned he knew everybody on the river from Castle Eaton to Duxford, which was some ten miles, and he was sure he didn’t know the fellow. Another had a sister in Lechlade and was certain he had never seen the man there. A third felt that he might have seen the man somewhere, but the longer he looked, the less willing he was to put money on it. A fourth wondered whether he was a river gypsy, for it was the time of year when their boats came down this stretch of the river, to be stared at with suspicion, and everybody made sure to lock their doors at night and bring inside anything that could be lifted. But with that good woolen jacket and his expensive leather boots—no. This was not a ragged gypsy man. A fifth stared and then, with triumph, remarked that the man was the very height and build of Liddiard from Whitey’s Farm, and was his hair not the same color too? A sixth pointed out that Liddiard was here at the other end of the table, and when the fifth looked across, he could not deny it. At the end of these and further discussions, it was agreed by one, two, three, four, five, six, and all the others present that they didn’t know him—at least they didn’t think so—but, looking as he did, who could be certain?

    Into the silence that followed this conclusion, a seventh man spoke. “Whatever has befallen him?”

    The man’s clothes were soaking wet, and the smell of the river, green and brown, was on him. Some accident on the water, that much was obvious. They talked of dangers on the river, of the water that played tricks on even the wisest of rivermen.

    “Is there a boat? Shall I go and see if I can spy one?” Beszant the boat mender offered.

    Margot was washing the blood from the man’s face with firm and gentle motions. She winced as she revealed the great gash that split his upper lip and divided his skin into two flaps that gaped to show his broken teeth and bloodied gum.

    “Leave the boat,” she instructed. “It is the man that matters. There is more here than I can help with. Who will run for Rita?” She looked round and spotted one of the farmhands who was too poor to drink much. “Neath, you are quick on your feet. Can you run along to Rush Cottage and fetch the nurse without stumbling? One accident is quite enough for one night.”

    The young man left.

    Jonathan meanwhile had kept apart from the others. The weight of the drenched puppet was cumbersome, so he sat down and arranged it on his lap. He thought of the papier-mâché dragon that the troupe of guisers had brought for a play last Christmastime. It was light and hard and had rapped with a light tat-tat-tat if you beat your fingernails against it. This puppet was not made of that. He thought of the dolls he had seen, stuffed with rice. They were weighty and soft. He had never seen one this size. He sniffed its head. There was no smell of rice—only the river. The hair was made of real hair, and he couldn’t work out how they had joined it to the head. The ear was so real, they might have molded it from a real one. He marveled at the perfect precision of the lashes. Putting his fingertip gently to the soft, damp, tickling ends of them caused the lid to move a little. He touched the lid with the gentlest of touches, and there was something behind. Slippery and globular, it was soft and firm at the same time.

    Something darkly unfathomable gripped him. Behind the backs of his parents and the drinkers, he gave the figure a gentle shake. An arm slid and swung from the shoulder joint, in a way a puppet’s arm ought not to swing, and he felt a rising water level, powerful and rapid, inside him.

    “It is a little girl.”

    In all the discussion around the injured man, nobody heard.

    Again, louder: “It is a little girl!”

    They turned.

    “She won’t wake up.” He held out the sodden little body so that they might see for themselves.

    They turned. They moved to stand around Jonathan. A dozen pairs of stricken eyes rested on the little body.

    Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious. What maker would go to such lengths, making a doll of such perfection only to dress it in the cotton smock any pauper’s daughter might wear? Who would paint a face in that macabre and lifeless manner? What maker other than the good Lord had it in him to make the curve of that cheekbone, the planes of that shin, that delicate foot with five toes individually shaped and sized and detailed? Of course it was a little girl! How could they ever have thought otherwise?

    In the room usually so thick with words, there was silence. The men who were fathers thought of their own children and resolved to show them nothing but love till the end of their days. Those who were old and had never known a child of their own suffered a great pang of absence, and those who were childless and still young were pierced with the longing to hold their own offspring in their arms.

    At last the silence was broken.

    “Good Lord!”

    “Dead, poor mite.”


    “Put the feather on her lips, Ma!”

    “Oh, Jonathan. It is too late for her.”

    “But it worked with the man!”

    “No, son, he was breathing already. The feather only showed us the life that was still in him.”

    “It might still be in her!”

    “It is plain she is gone, poor lass. She is not breathing, and besides, you have only to look at her color. Who will carry the poor child to the long room? You take her, Higgs.”

    “But it’s cold there,” Jonathan protested.

    His mother patted his shoulder. “She won’t mind that. She is not really here anymore and it is never cold in the place she has gone to.”

    “Let me carry her.”

    “You carry the lantern, and unlock the door for Mr. Higgs. She’s heavy for you, my love.”

    The gravel digger took the body from Jonathan’s failing grip and lifted her as though she weighed no more than a goose. Jonathan lit the way out and round the side to a small stone outbuilding. A thick wooden door gave onto a narrow windowless storeroom. The floor was of plain earth, and the walls had never been plastered or paneled or painted. In summer it was a good place to leave a plucked duck or a trout that you are not yet hungry for; on a winter night like this one it was bitter. Projecting from one wall was a stone slab, and it was here that Higgs laid her down. Jonathan, remembering the fragility of the papier-mâché, cradled her skull—“So as not to hurt her”—as it came into contact with the stone.

    Higgs’s lantern cast a circle of light onto the girl’s face.

    “Ma said she’s dead,” Jonathan said.

    “That’s right, lad.”

    “Ma says she’s in another place.”

    “She is.”

    “She looks as though she’s here, to me.”

    “Her thoughts have emptied out of her. Her soul has passed.”

    “Couldn’t she be asleep?”

    “Nay, lad. She’d’ve woke up by now.”

    The lantern cast flickering shadows onto the unmoving face, the warmth of its light tried to mask the dead white of the skin, but it was no substitute for the inner illumination of life.

    “There was a girl who slept for a hundred years, once. She was woke up with a kiss.”

    Higgs blinked fiercely. “I think that was just a story.”

    The circle of light shifted from the girl’s face and illuminated Higgs’s feet as they made their way out again, but at the door he discovered that Jonathan was not beside him. Turning, he raised the lantern again in time to see him stoop and place a kiss on the child’s forehead in the darkness.

    Jonathan watched the girl intently. Then his shoulders slumped.

    They locked the door behind them and came away.

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Once Upon a River includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining one another by telling stories. The night is interrupted when the door bursts open on an injured stranger carrying the drowned corpse of a little child.

    Hours later the dead girl opens her eyes and lives again. In the face of this event, the witnesses attempt to explain the impossible in a great outburst of storytelling. Was it a miracle? Is it magic? Or could there be a scientific explanation for the girl who died and lived again?

    The mystery deepens. Where did the child come from, and where does she belong? Who is she? Those who dwell on the riverbank grow increasingly fascinated by the mystery child, and the fates of three families in particular are connected by the mystery that began at the Swan on that winter’s night.

    Topics and Questions for Discussion

    1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?

    2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?

    3. What is the significance of the river?

    4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia’s kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, “the horror of it was quite excised.” What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan? What about the other characters?

    5. A wedge is driven between the Vaughans as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of Amelia. In the end, what brings them together? How?

    6. How does Robert Armstrong, raised outside family life in circumstances of financially cushioned neglect, turn out to be such a good man?

    7. “Sometimes I think there is nothing more a man can do. A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” Do you agree with Armstrong’s lament at the end of the book? Is it possible if he had been a different kind of father things might have turned out differently for Robin?

    8. Is Lily White responsible for her actions?

    9. Consider the importance of family in the novel. What does it mean to Robert Armstrong? What does family mean to Daunt and Rita? And Victor? What about Lily?

    10. It’s easy to get carried away talking about the key families in the plot, the Vaughans, the Armstrongs, and Lily and her brother, but what about the family at the inn? What important functions do they perform? And what do the drinkers—largely unnamed—add?

    11. Storytelling is central to Once Upon a River. The story of Quietly the ferryman is an invention of the author, but it contains many elements from traditional or mythological tales. Does it remind you of any other stories in particular?

    12. How many types or styles of story are told in Once Upon a River? Be as wide in your interpretation of “story” as you like!

    13. Folk beliefs are still alive on the riverbank—changelings, witches, and dragons are all still real to some, and the Armstrongs believe Bess has a Seeing eye. What are the real-life consequences of these stories? Which characters have faith in these stories, and which do not? How does it affect their actions?

    14. In the context of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, what do you make of Rita’s reluctance to marry? What brings her to reconsider?

    15. Is the fortune-telling pig mere light relief or something more?

    16. The identity of the girl is one of the driving mysteries of Once Upon a River. What were your early thoughts about who she really was, and did they alter as the story developed? What did you think of the way this question was resolved at the end?

    17. The ending elaborates on the “return to life” of children apparently drowned. Did this come as a surprise to you?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. The art of oral storytelling is at the heart of Once Upon a River. It used to be central in every human society, but with the advent of literacy, and then TV and cinema, it has become rare to gather to listen to someone tell a story from memory. How about resurrecting the art by devoting part of a book club meeting to telling stories aloud?

    2. Man is said to be the storytelling ape. Stories are the way people make sense of the world and their place in it. Are there stories (family stories or personal ones) that have shaped you and your sense of the world?

    3. Diane Setterfield’s book The Thirteenth Tale was made into a BBC film starring Vanessa Redgrave, and Once Upon a River is to be a television series. Whom would you cast to bring the mysterious events of the Swan in Once Upon a River to life? Share your casting picks for Margot, Joe, Jonathan, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan, Rita, Daunt, Lily White, Victor, and the others with your book club.

    4. Many of the settings in the book are based on real places that stand today in England: Ye Olde Swan, still a working pub; Buscot House (the model for Buscot Lodge), now owned by the National Trust and open for visits; and Kelmscott Manor, a grand house also open to visitors, are all situated along the Thames in Oxfordshire. Should you be so lucky to go, start planning your trip at www.experienceoxfordshire.org. And if you can’t go in person, how about a virtual trip down the Thames at www.thames.me.uk?

    5. Learn more about author Diane Setterfield by visiting her website at www.dianesetterfield.com, or following her on Facebook.

    Customer Reviews

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    Once Upon a River: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 82 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is the most long winded book I think I've ever read. It's been a long time since a book has given me feelings of dread every time I picked it up. Although I've never read a book by this author, I was nonetheless excited to dive into this one based on the rave reviews for not only this book but for Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Not every author and/or book is for everybody and this one was certainly not my glass of chocolate milk. While the prose is without a doubt prolific, the story crawled at an excruciating pace with pages and pages of descriptive text. Some have commented that the prolonged details are necessary in the telling of the story, I humbly disagree. There are a ton of characters in this story and while they are all fleshed out to the nth degree, I didn't care about or relate to any of them. There is a lot of magic, as well religious undertones in this story, both of which turned me off immediately as I tend to steer clear of those subjects. I realize that I am in the tiniest of minority of people that feel this book fell way short of expectations while most every other reviewer fell in love with this book. I do not discourage readers from picking this one up for that reason alone. 2 Stars for the writing ?? I was provided an ARC of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    A Thames River tale is at the heart of this novel. The river and the legend draw together all the characters and all the threads of their mysteries. Life & death & life again. Love lost and then found. Optimistic in the end as a reward for searching for, finding, and facing truth.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The story is like the river. Sometimes swift and furious and then it meanders and becomes placid. Several stories within a larger plot. The loose ends are all connected in the end.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    PinkFirework More than 1 year ago
    This book, for some reason kind of reminded me of The Snow Child a bit. The story starts off by introducing readers to all of the characters throughout the sleepy little town, each with their own lives and dark pasts. As the citizens are sitting in the local inn/tavern, a man stumbles in from a storm carrying what appears to be a dead child. From that point forward the story really begins. I'm amazed by how seamlessly the author weaved in the townspeople's stories into the overall plot. As the story progresses, you find out more about each of these people and how they might(?) be connected to the sudden appearance of the child. If you're a fan of magical realism, I think you'll definitely enjoy this book!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book as much as I loved The Thirteenth Tale, possibly more. The characters were so well wtitten that i miss The Swan amd its inhabitants. The story is in many ways a fable and it flows like the river, enjoy it and savor it. Its an exceptional story.
    Book_and_recipe_Examiner More than 1 year ago
    At winter solstice in the Swan at Radcot, a weathered pub beside the Thames river, where stories are told and retold round the bar and a roaring fire, a man washes up, banged-up and nearly dead, with a very young girl, as lifeless as a mannequin. Until her eyes flutter open. Is it a miracle? No one can tell; not the town nurse, Rita, who aided her, nor the others who witnessed her carried in. But then a mystery ensues: whose child is she? More than one family comes to claim the girl, and the evidence each family contains only adds to the mystery. Does she belong to the wealthy white family who longed for a child for many years? Does she belong to the mixed-race family, with a dead mother and a father who abandoned her, leaving her dark-skinned grandfather to claim her? What credence should be given to the slow-minded girl who lives in a derelict cottage further down the river and insists that the baby is her lost sister? And what evidence is there for each claim? Each family’s secrets will unveil the darkest branches of their histories, at the stake of finding the right home for the little girl. Full of mysteries, town secrets, and old legends, Once Upon a River is about a place where miracles and myth follow the river to display the influence of family and having a good story to tell on a cold, wintery night. For discussion questions, a list of similar reads, and an accompanying recipe for super easy cinnamon apple buns, visit http://hub.me/amsos.
    escape_inabook More than 1 year ago
    I received a free advance copy of this title via netgalley and the publisher. My review is unsolicited and opinions are my own. This book is phenomenal and I don’t toss high praise around lightly. Every page is another layer to an expertly executed lush tapestry. The first two chapters were a little slow to grasp my interest but once I passed them I could not stop reading.
    JHSEsq 4 months ago
    Author Diane Setterfield takes her readers back to 1887 when history was passed from generation to generation orally, neighbors all knew each other, and the local pub was the place where people gathered to share news and repeat the same stories over and over. It was a time before modern medicine and forensics. The story begins at the Swan, an ancient inn operated by Joe Bliss and his wife, Margot, on the night of the solstice. As the locals gather, the door bursts open and a man with a bloodied, misshapen head roars in carrying a lifeless child. Rita, the local nurse, cares for the man but is convinced that the little girl is deceased. But then something miraculous happens. The child opens her eyes. So begins the quest to ascertain the child's identity. The man who brings her to the Swan is Henry Daunt, a photographer, who pulled the drowned child from the Thames. But how she ended up there is a mystery that she cannot help unravel because she does not speak. Helena Vaughan is convinced that the child is her beloved Amelia, who was kidnapped from her bedroom in the Vaughans' mansion two years ago. During those two years, Helena has been inconsolable, and believing that her daughter has returned not only restores her hope and vigor, but rejuvenates her marriage to Anthony. He is convinced only of one thing: the child is not Amelia, although he has never confessed the real reason why he is certain. Rather, he goes along with Helena, participating in the charade, relieved to see his wife happy and their relationship vibrant again. But could the child be Alice Armstrong, daughter of Robin? Little Alice's mother committed suicide, and is presumed to have drowned her daughter. Robin has been a disappointment to his stepfather, Robert, who married Robin's mother, Bess, vowing to love and raise her unborn child as his own. Robert is educated, articulate, and aristocratic, but has always known, because of the color of his skin, what it feels like to be an outsider. He was determined that Robin would never know that same pain, but despite his efforts, Robin has turned out to be a gambler, drinker, and criminal who does not care about his family, and is perhaps determined to profit by convincing everyone that the child is indeed Alice. Lily White, a widow, works in the parson's household insists that the little girl is her sister, Ann, who went missing at four years of age. Rita and the parson attempt to convince Lily that is quite impossible, given that Lily is in her forties. She has harbored a dark secret for decades about which she has been consumed with grief and self-loathing. Satterfield weaves a compelling tale about mistaken identity, longing, grief, and the willingness to believe the impossible in order to alleviate sorrow. Her large and eclectic cast of characters each have engrossing histories, secrets, and motivations. Satterfield skillfully reveals the truth about each character's past, injecting clues as to the true identity of the child. She explores her characters' inner conflicts with compassion and insight, rendering many of them empathetic and relatable. The pace of the book emulates that of the river's flow. Once Upon a River is a fairy tale with a timeless quality, full of lush, evocative prose. Atmospheric and original, populated by fascinating and endearing characters, and full of unexpected plot twists and surprises, the story is as haunting as it is charming. Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Reader's Copy.
    Anonymous 8 months ago
    Rag_Doll 9 months ago
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, one of the best I've read for a while. Having read and loved The Thirteenth Tale, I knew I'd be in for a good solid story with Once Upon A River. Several times during the book I was reminded of the writing style of Charles Dickens – a story with proper grounding and characters with personality. Set in 1887 on the banks of the River Thames, much of the story centres around the The Swan, a local inn where storytelling is the entertainment and where more beer means more embellishment. One evening, an injured man stumbles in carrying a young girl who appears to be dead. A little girl who sometime later is alive. This is a time when superstition and supernatural blurred into real life and a dead girl coming back to life is a fantastical story for all to tell and re-tell. The girl has three possible identities, she is either Alice, Amelia or Ann, and none is certain of her identity even when she lives with two of the families claiming her. The girl herself has lost the ability to speak and there is frustration from the Vaughans who desperately want her to be Amelia, their daughter who disappeared two years ago. The river plays a large part of the story and to add to the strange goings on with a child coming back to life, there is rain, more rain, and inevitable flooding which seeps into their homes and lives as the river becomes a torrent. Amidst superstition and folklore there's also skulduggery, ransoms and beatings. Once Upon A River is a fulfilling story which has a depth of storytelling which is rare these days. I absolutely loved it.
    KarlieSch 10 months ago
    Exactly what you are looking for in a story... This story was full of magical realism and exactly what I was looking for when I started reading it. The small river town setting was essential to the story, reminding me at times of scenes of inns on the river in Game of Thrones. While the interweaving of the lives of multiple characters was slightly confusing at times, all of your questions are answered and everything wraps up nicely by the end. I was afraid everything wouldn't tie together in the end, but it was perfect. I loved the moral compass, Mr. Armstrong, and how it's not just the love of a mother highlighted in the book, but also the love a father can feel too. I definitely recommend this book, especially if you liked the Thirteenth Tale
    Anonymous 11 months ago
    A wonderful book! Loved the author's style. Many interesting characters and a story that was constantly moving. A bit of fantasy but that blends in well.
    BooksDirect More than 1 year ago
    “A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.” So begins this tale set along the Thames River and its tributaries, starting at the Swan inn at Radcot, famous for its storytelling. It’s solstice night, the longest night of the year, “a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.” A stranger stumbles into the inn, carrying a little girl who, for all intents and purposes, is dead. “A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page.” Then she shows signs of life. “Is it a miracle?” It is “as if they had told a tale of a fairy princess and finished it only to find her sitting in a corner of the room listening.” The girl is later claimed by no less than three different families: Bess and Robert Armstrong, farmers from Kelmscott, believe she is their grandchild Alice, the daughter of their son Robin. At Buscot, Helena and Anthony Vaughan mourn the disappearance of her daughter Amelia two years earlier. Can this be her? And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, claims the child is her sister Ann, who died many years ago. How can this be so? But they’re not the only ones who want her. Innkeeper Margot, who already has thirteen children, wants to keep her. Henry Daunt, the photographer who rescues the girl, feels she is the daughter he wishes he’d had from his failed marriage. Even Rita Sunday, the nurse who never wanted to have a child, wishes she were hers. And then there’s Mr. Quietly, the ghostly ferryman whose daughter drowned in the river. The girl herself does not speak and seems perfectly content with whoever takes her. But she has an endless fascination with the river. Who is she really? The narrator speaks to us directly, involving us in the narrative. The main story detours into rich backstories which we think are irrelevant but which all tie together masterfully. We are introduced to an array of characters whose stories are woven into the original narrative via the river, as these scenes take place along tributaries of the Thames. The ever-present river is anthropomorphized and becomes a character in its own right. The book contains great descriptive passages. The author’s simple, yet powerful prose allows us to see things in a whole new light. She uses imaginative similes - for example, when describing how stories change in the re-telling: “It was like a living thing that he had caught but not trained; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s.” - and watery metaphors. And her description of the river’s path to the ocean, including a poetic description of the water cycle, is pure genius. Just like the storytellers at the Swan, the author’s storytelling is so engaging that I didn’t want to put the book down, and I didn’t want it to end. The author’s first novel, "The Thirteenth Tale", is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so glad this one didn’t disappoint. Warnings: mild sex scene, suicide, violence. Full blog post (12 May): https://www.booksdirectonline.com/2019/05/once-upon-a-river-by-diane-setterfield.html
    DressedToRead More than 1 year ago
    A story that completely transported me to the Swan, a vintage inn on the Thames River. "The dead girl lived again." And the story, the mystery of the little girl, and those who would claim her as their own....began. This is a book that needed my full concentration to appreciate. I wanted to find a quiet reading spot and was able to just get "lost" in the weaving and turning and telling of the tale. Reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, blended with folklore, and mystery. A book for those who want to spend time in the unfolding of this magical story. The characters were engaging and I was fully invested in learning what would become of the dead girl who lived again . Recommend to those who enjoy an epic tale that needs your attention to fully enjoy.
    ShellB82 More than 1 year ago
    Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River. This historical mystery tale begins when a wounded stranger enters The Swan pub carrying what appears to be a waxen doll and is told like a fairytale. The mystery begins when the doll turns out to be a little girl who seems dead only to come to life setting tongues wagging in the village and villages up and down the Thames. Who is the little girl? Two families seem to claim her but there is a cruel plot afoot. With elements of the supernatural balanced by the scientific logic of a Rita, the local nurse and Henry Daunt, a skilled photographer and the girl's rescuer, some mysteries are solved and some endings are happy. The first third of Once Upon a River moves a bit slowly as the reader is acquainted with the characters and the local lore but after Part One the story moves along more steadily with as many twists and unexpected connections as the river itself. It was these twists that kept me reading, eager to learn exactly where the girl had come from. Personally, as the daughter of a photographer, I was most fascinated by the Victorian era photography methods and Taunt's character.
    apeape More than 1 year ago
    A beautifully written story about the power of stories. It's a slow burn, so grab a snack and a blanket and settle in. Lots of atmosphere and a bit of magic, some suspense, and an air of mystery. Read this when you're ready to fall into a book and not come out for a while.
    JMBS1212 More than 1 year ago
    Solid 3.5 What a great read! The pacing was slow but that did not make the book bad! Quite the opposite! It made the story that more amazing. It gave you time to get to know the characters and fall deeply into the story. The story centers about a small child found in the river dead....until she is not, and an injured man who carries her to the inn. Who is this child? How did she come back? Who is the man she is with? The town folk in the inn gather around and try guess the mystery behind the child. The story has a lot of characters, side stories but they all tie up neatly in the end. Setterfield weaves a great story and I would check out her other works, that I hear are just as amazing. I would recommend this book to just about everyone!
    Meemo_B More than 1 year ago
    I wasn't quite sure what to expect here, since I'd not read a Diane Setterfield book before (not that I hadn't heard of her, I just never got around to reading her). What I got was...well, a lot...a rich story full of science and magic, heroes and villains, love and hate, a storyteller telling a story full of storytellers. And a river runs through it all, carrying life and death. It's a lovely read, with excellent characterizations of the characters and the world they live in. Now I need to bump Setterfield's other books up my TBR list. On a side note, I combined listening and reading on this one, and Juliet Stevenson's narration of the audiobook is brilliant. Thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing a copy for an unbiased review.
    Maryvero More than 1 year ago
    I would define this a mix between novel and historical fiction. The plot takes place in 19th century England, the starting of the book really creates an atmosphere that makes you feel you are reading about something ancient, but at the same time somehow familiar. It is a book about storytelling. The language is definitely UK English and requires a little more attention if you are from the U.S. (combined by the fact that English is not your first language). After the little slow intro, then we are captivated by the mistery: a man and a girl enter into a bar. The girl seems dead, but then somehow revives. The question is: who is this girl? Read the book if you want to know.
    JennGrand More than 1 year ago
    This book is not only beautifully written, but gloriously intricate. It begins when a stranger brings a lifeless girl into the town bar, and she miraculously comes back to life. Three different families claim her, and no matter what happens, someone will be disappointed.  You will be swept up in its words from the very first page and you won't be able to forget it long after the last page. It's fabulous. Trust me, please read it!
    taramichelle More than 1 year ago
    I absolutely loved Once Upon A River, the story was absolutely enchanting. The writing was just beautiful and I loved the slight magical realism feel to the novel. The characters were brilliant, vividly drawn and so very flawed. I had high hopes for this novel and Setterfield managed to surpass them. *Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
    Twink More than 1 year ago
    I've read Diane Setterfield's previous two historical fiction novels and really enjoyed them. But her latest, Once Upon a River? Absolutely fantastic! 1887. A pub in a small village on the River Thames. And what is a pub if not a gathering place, a place to catch up with neighbours and friends and a place to tell stories. Many stories are told of the dark and stormy night that Henry Daunt stumbled into The Swan, half dead and carrying a small girl. The girl appears to be dead....but miraculously isn't. But who is she? Many claim to know her, but is she Ann? Amelia? Alice? "In this room, in this inn, they had seen her dead and seen her alive. Unknowable, ungraspable, inexplicable, still one thing was plain: she was their story." I was drawn into Setterfield's tale from the opening pages. I could picture myself sitting in a cozy corner of the pub, listening to the stories being told. Once Upon a River has a delicious fairy tale feel to it. We are introduced into a wealth of characters as the search for who the child is begins. Each and every one is wonderfully drawn. And as with a fairy tale, you'll find the 'good' and the 'bad' very easy to determine. I was drawn to so many of the 'good' ones. But my favourite has to be Robert Armstrong, a farmer who plays a pivotal role in this tale. His goodness shines through, his determination to do the right thing. And...he talks to his pigs. And the pigs seem to understand and answer with their eyes. A close second was Rita Sunday - a no nonsense nurse whose crisp exterior covers up her heart's desire - and fears. But the entire book revolves around this character - the water, the River Thames. The water gives and takes, holds memories of what has gone and knows what should be. Who the girl might be (and was she really dead?) is at the center of the book. And the answer to that drives the book forward in a measured, meandering, magical journey. Setterfield's prose are wonderful and the story captivated me. I was sad to turn the last page. But so very glad I read this one. Once Upon a River has found a forever home on my bookshelf. "And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"
    Shortcake5 More than 1 year ago
    How Dreamy is this Fantasy, Once Upon a River? Diane Setterfield is a brilliant writer. The intertwining of story, the life experiences that cross over into other realms. The confusion that one little baby can create. Is so well told that you just can't put this book down. If you love fantasy like Inkheart; Lord of the Rings; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe I can see you falling in love with this book.
    LouiseFoerster More than 1 year ago
    Loved the pace, loved the unfurling connections throughout this wonderful story. Masterful story, filled with magic and real life centering on the river that flows through the lives of complex, wonderfully drawn characters. I was enraptured from the first sentence and read breathless this perfectly paced, excellent novel.