“Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

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Thanks to Random House UK and NetGalley for the advance reading copy.

I absolutely ADORED this beautifully written, atmospheric mystery. The blurb piqued my interest and once I started reading the story hooked me from the start. I grabbed every chance I could to binge read it, staying up far, far too late into the night to finish it. The novel is written in a lyrical, flowing narrative that mirrors its watery theme and enigmatic narrative.

The story follows a number of different characters and their link to a mysterious event, the apparent resurrection of a drowned young girl. The setting reminded me a little of Philip Pullman’s “La Belle Sauvage” and the descriptions of the Thames also reminded me of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”. Indeed, the theme of water is one present throughout the novel to the extent that water feels like a main character in itself.

I loved the characters, in particular Rita and Armstrong as I felt they were the most well developed and interesting. Rita is a woman who has forged her own path as a competent and independent healer, and Armstrong to whom the bonds of family surpass all others. Although the story is set in an indeterminate past, they felt contemporary. The main characters were well written to the extent that I genuinely cared about what happened to them. There were moments I cried, particularly in relation to the heart-breaking story of the Vaughans and their palpable grief and despair over their missing daughter. The main villain also manages to be suitably awful without turning into a caricature.

The novel is at its heart a good old-fashioned British folk tale. There is an air of mystery running throughout and the supernatural element is present enough to thrill without being hokey. The conclusion is satisfying and draws a everything to a coherent finish. The story telling regulars of The Swan would love it! Highly recommended.

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