A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield - Feature and Review


A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.



Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is a 2019 Atria/Emily Bestler Books publication.

A deeply mysterious, hypnotic and fantastical Gothic yarn!

Nearly a century ago, on Winter Solstice, folks assembled together at ‘The Swan at Radcot’, a local inn, where they plan to spend the evening swapping stories. But, suddenly, a stranger comes staggering in, half drowned, carrying a young girl, who appears deceased. However, when the local nurse is called to the scene, she discovers the child is breathing- appearing to have miraculously returned from the dead!!

The man who rescued the child has no idea who she is. While the girl remains mute, she is claimed by three different people or families. One woman dubiously claims the girl is her sister, while another couple, devastated by the kidnapping of their only daughter, is positive the child is theirs, and yet another couple is convinced the girl is their grandchild, the daughter of their ne’er do well son.

While the base foundation is built up around the mystery of the Lazarus child, there are several separate threads embedded within the main story.

Each character carries a burden, a secret, or extreme guilt, but they also carry hope and the wish to keep the child away from any harm, refusing to become combatant with the others who wish to claim her.

The author weaves magical realism into the mysterious tale seamlessly, creating an exquisite Gothic atmosphere so thick you can slice it. This book is perfectly suited to my taste in Gothic fiction. I loved the mystery, the allegory, and the combinations of various historical and Gothic styles the author employs, which pays homage to a few literary greats.

In many ways, this novel is an ode to storytelling, because the art of verbal storytelling, is at the core upon which the book is based. The residents who gather at ‘The Swan’ and their stories, are referenced often.

Even the title, borrows from the age old ‘Once Upon a Time’ which precedes a great many stories which have been passed down for centuries. These tales, legends and myths, folklore and fairytales, can challenge the imagination, and nurture creativity, as well as pass along a few lessons, encouraging one to exercise a little critical thinking, as well.

This absorbing tale slowly lures the reader into its web, moving at a languid pace, bringing various threads together a little at a time, while providing what might be best described as vignettes within the base of the story, which keeps the reader invested, while adding depth, character, and emotions into the mix, leaving one transfixed by the all the implications and developments, the imagery, whimsy and reflection.

This story does have a large cast of characters, does meander a bit, and is very dense, which did require a sharper focus on my part. Ironically, though, the large cast, and the intricacy of the plot, which I normally struggle with, was an asset and not a hindrance, in this case.

However, one may need to exercise a little patience, in the beginning, and I might also suggest unplugging for a while, to fully absorb the rich textures and layers of the story. Savor this one slowly when you can give it your undivided attention.

You’ll soon find yourself lost in another time and place, so far removed from the ordinary you’ll be reluctant to leave the cocoon the story has wrapped you up in. That is what a good story should do-

If you follow my reviews, then you know I love Gothic tales- so of course, I was easily drawn into this unique story, and relished every second of it! For those who aren’t into Gothic stories as much as I am, this one might challenge you a bit. But, if you stick with it, you may discover, that while it might be an acquired a taste, once you’ve been bitten by the bug you'll be a fan for life.





Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and is enjoyed as much for being ‘a love letter to reading’ as for its mystery and style. Her second novel, Bellman & Black (2013 is a genre-defying tale of rooks and Victorian retail. January 2019 sees the publication of her new title, Once Upon a River, which has been called 'bewitching' and 'enchanting'. 

Diane Setterfield has been published in over forty countries.

Diane lives in Oxford, in the UK. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading. She is, she says, ‘a reader first, a writer second.’


  1. This one didn't work for me. Tried it in audio, and the narrator was fantastic, but it just wasn't for me. Glad you loved it ♡

    1. Sorry this one didn't work for you. Some of these Gothic style novels are an acquired taste. Thank you so much for stopping by The Book Review today!! 💕


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