Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

“The other drinkers lingered. Storytelling of the usual kind was over for the night – who would stop to tell a story when one was actually happening? – and so they refilled their tankards and glasses, relit their pipes, and settled on their stools. Joe put his shaving things away and returned to his chair, where from time to time he discreetly coughed. From his stool by the window, Johnathan kept an eye on the logs in the fire and surveyed the level of the candles.” 

Well, this was better than I expected! Before I get into my thoughts on this, I want to give a quick summary of the story.


One night at the Swan Inn, a man holding a deceased child comes in on the verge of collapse. As the onlookers puzzle over him, the child mysteriously comes back to life and three parties make a move to claim who the girl is. But as time goes on, these three parties discover that it may be harder than they thought to find out her identity. As the mystery deepens, however, the parties discover that it may take more than the child to bring an end to their stories. Will each party be able to get resolutions to their stories, or will the child’s appearance muddy the waters even more than they already were before she appeared? 

Initial Thoughts 

This is my second time reading a Setterfield book and – as I’d hoped – she did not disappoint! This story is absolutely fascinating!

I love the atmosphere Setterfield sets up in this story. I would expect something strange to happen at the Swan inn and how the events of the story unfold is really intriguing. It’s awesome to see all these characters gather together at the inn and witness the events unfold from there.

I really enjoyed the deep dive into all these different characters’ lives. 

Speaking of, that’s as good a place to start as any…


The characters are great in this book. I love how it’s easy to tell them apart and sympathize with them. I found myself feeling for many of the characters and thought I’d talk about the ones that most stood out to me. 

            Robert Armstrong 

            “On the first morning following the longest night, the clatter of hooves on cobbles announced a visitor to the village of Bampton. The few who happened to be outside at this early hour frowned and looked up. What fool was this, riding at full tilt into their narrow street? When horse and rider came into view, they grew curious. Instead of being one of their own immature lads, the rider was an outsider…”

Admittedly, Armstrong’s probably my favorite character because the story surrounding him and his family is fascinating! I love how the man is well-educated and wants the best for his family. I love the conflict he faces with his eldest son Robin and the threat to their relationship in the story, and how Armstrong reacts to all of it. 

            I love that Armstrong is genuinely torn up about what his son does over the course of the story. I love that the death of Robin’s wife along with the disappearance of the child Alice pulls Armstrong right into the story without being contrived.

            I really like Armstrong’s gentlemanlike personality, and how he can seemingly make friends with any one person or any animal he comes into contact with. His relationship with the young child Ben comes to mind in particular given that they hit it off when they first met!

            Lily White 

            “Lily had come to live in the cottage four years ago. She had introduced herself as Mrs. White, a widow, and was thought at first to be slippery because she gave evasive answers to any question that touched on her past life and nervously rebuffed all friendly interest.”

I also liked Lily White, although I admit to being suspicious of her in the early chapters because of the man coming in and out of her home. I felt for her as well when it came to the little girl, because she was so convinced it was her sister. 

            The visits she made to the pastor really helped nourish the sympathy I had for her, because even when it’s not obvious what’s happening, you can’t help but feel for this poor woman who’s obviously lonely. 

            The big reveal regarding her and her sister also made me feel for her, and it was heartbreaking to see her suffer because of what happened in the past. 

The Vaughans (Anthony and Helena)

Another couple I can’t help feeling sorry for… 

Admittedly, that wasn’t the case right away. Anthony in particular came off as somewhat selfish at first, wanting his wife to forget that their daughter had been kidnapped and instead focus on him. 

Over time, though, I started to feel sorry for the both of them. It’s obvious Helena is very upset about the child throughout the story and their taking in the child from the river allowed her to believe herself happy again. 

That being said, I felt for Anthony when he had a hunch about the girl not being theirs. I was surprised by this because, given my earlier impression of him, it was a complete one-eighty from what I thought I knew about him. 

Victor Nash 

Right off the bat, I could tell that this character was a bad guy. His treatment of Lily was horribly abusive and it’s clear that she’s terrified of him throughout the story. 

Besides his treatment of Lily, the big revelation toward the end of the story actually makes him look even worse. He’s a horrible, horrible person and I loathed him by the end of it all. 

His relationship with Robin in particular actually made me feel bad for Robin (which – earlier in the story – I didn’t think was going to be possible!) and I really wish they’d never met each other in adulthood. It would have been better if Robin had just cut ties, although I can understand his fear of the man. 


The story is separated into different parts depending on what’s being focused on, whether it be the girl, the river, the different families, and so on. 

I think the different parts kind of blended together a bit (as in, they may not have been needed) but otherwise the story has a good, continuous flow to it that I appreciate. It made the plot easier to follow. 

I like how the point of view shifts among several of the major characters, giving each person time to show their significance in the overall story. The little girl that came back to life is really just a catalyst for all these major characters and we don’t really learn much about her, but I think that’s okay in this case because she’s not meant to be a major player otherwise. 

I like that the story of Quietly the ferryman also plays a role in the narrative, even though I was genuinely surprised by how it did come into play. It was interesting to see the stories connected to the river impact the lives of the characters. 


All in all, I really enjoyed this story. Setterfield has woven a fantastic plot together with likable characters that will make it very hard to put the story down until you’ve reached the conclusion. Highly, highly recommended!

By Amber Rizzi

I am a literature geek working toward my Bachelor's in English with a concentration in writing. I love to read, and I'm always itching to write, especially creatively. I started "The Writer's Library" about three years ago, previously working with a Blogger platform before moving over to Wordpress. While I mainly post reviews of books, occasionally I will go ahead and review works in other media forms as well, such as music and certain television shows. No matter what I'm doing on here, I love to share with anyone who is willing to listen, and I'm excited to finally be on Wordpress!