Thursday, December 03, 2020

‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield

3 December 2020

I’m really enjoying ‘Once Upon a River’ – a beautiful and intriguing novel by Diane Setterfield. Set around the River Thames in Oxfordshire in the late 19th century, the carefully crafted prose made me wonder whether the book had been written in that era, before I discovered that Diane Setterfield is a contemporary writer and this novel was published in 2018. The book starts on a dark winter’s night in a riverside pub where the locals are interrupted by the arrival of a wounded stranger carrying the lifeless body of a small child. From there the story winds backwards, forwards and sideways like the ever-present river, allowing the tale to emerge gradually as the various pieces take their places in the jigsaw puzzle narrative. The Oxfordshire riverside setting made me think of 'La Belle Sauvage' – Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ prequel (reviewed here in December 2017). And the descriptions of the river reminded me of Charles Dickens’ omniscient third person narrator 'floating' over the landscape in ‘Bleak House’ (reviewed here in October 2007).  The book’s gradual colouring-in of the local community and the various families who have a stake in the story also had a lot in common with ‘Reservoir 13’ – Jon McGregor’s amazing prose portrait of a small Derbyshire village (reviewed here in January 2018). I particularly enjoyed having no idea where ‘Once Upon a River’ was going but total confidence in the author who was taking me there. I look forward to reading more by Diane Setterfield.



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