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June Book Club: Once Upon a River

June Book Club: Once Upon a River

Welcome to our June choice for the Well Read Company Book Club!

I love a book that defies fitting neatly into one genre, which is definitely the case for Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon A River. Part crime-thriller, part fantasy and part historical romance, I like to think that it has something for every reader!

The novel interweaves many different plot threads, but the centre of the story surrounds a very peculiar little girl. The story is set in the 19th Century, and one dark midwinter night at a cosy inn on the bank of the River Thames, a wounded stranger bursts in carrying the lifeless body of a young girl. Hours later, the girl returns to life - apparently brought back from the dead. In the small village, questions abound - who is the girl? How did she come back to life? Why can’t she speak? And, most importantly, who does she belong to?

There are many different characters who stake a claim to the girl, each claiming to know her or to have lost her. Here is the mystery of the novel, as the tangled threads of her apparent identity confound both the villagers and the reader. It is clear more than one person is lying, but for what reason? Although the novel boasts a wide range of characters, each are vibrant and easily empathetic, whilst the minutiae of small village interactions and rumours are exposed. “A river no more begins at its source than a story begins with the first page.”

Romance also blossoms between two sets of characters, without in any way distracting from the main mystery core of the novel. This acts as a light contrast to some of the perhaps darker themes. Likewise, issues such as race and sexism are handled deftly and without any clumsiness from Setterfield, which to me made the whole book feel much more realistic. These factors were an unfortunate way of life for people living at the time, meaning the historical setting is rendered acutely and convincingly. 

Those who aren’t a fan of magical realism may struggle with this book, as it is threaded with elements of the supernatural. The characters in the novel discuss magic and Darwinism, highlighting the dawn of evolutionary understanding as we know it today. “The laws of life and death, as she had learned them, were incomplete. There was more to life, more to death, than medical science had known.” I found it very interesting to see this battle unfurl between science and fantasy, magic and rationalism. 

Overall I feel that this is one of those books that is best ventured into partly blind, as it’s bound to surprise you. We loved reading this novel this month and are so excited to discuss it with you - please tell us what you thought via social media or by commenting on this post!