Once Upon A River is a novel of fairy-tale-adjacent historical fiction that manages to skillfully avoid hackneyed genre tropes to deliver a powerful and engaging account of family, community, and the power of storytelling.
From the first line of the novel, Setterfield brings you into a world completely consumed by the ebb and flow of the Thames, a river as much a character as any of the men, women, and children in the book. A little girl goes missing in the river, presumed drowned, but her body in never found. It is this mystery that binds the story together. You float along with the words of an unseen narrator as the tale of three families, seemingly disparate at first, draw closer and closer together.
While there is no magic outright, the spirit and fear of the unknown conjures fairies and ghosts alike in the depths of Setterfield’s vividly evoked Thames. Profound without being obtuse, Once Upon A River is a heartfelt portrayal of a fictional village grappling with the spectrum of humanity, from turpitude to tenderness. I particularly liked Setterfield’s style which was illustrative but not flowery, concise but not sparse. She writes you into the story as a member of the Greek chorus in her English drama and it’s a delight.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary historical fiction about the everyday person and readers particularly keen on the type of mystery that gets passed down from generation to generation until it becomes legend. Anyone who enjoyed Gregory Maguire’s Mirror, Mirror or Elizabeth Blackwell’s While Beauty Slept, will likely enjoy this book. Overall, I think most readers who like multiple story lines converging to a satisfying end will find something to like in Once Upon A River.