This is a lovely book where classically fairy tale things happen. Set on the River Thames in Oxford around the turn of the 20th century, it follows individuals and families as a girl is found not-quite-dead in the river. Everybody sees somebody different in this child, they see the lost daughter they wished they could re-find, or the lost sibling who died some thirty years ago. We follow the people of the village as they attempt to care for, claim stewardship over, and make counter-claims about her. This otherworldly, captivating child precipitates the best and the worst parts of our characters and their pasts.
I’ve been describing Setterfield’s book as “fairytales for grownups” which sounds like a good description to me, but I’m also worried it’s a little dismissive. So please interpret it generously. This book made me feel like stories made me feel when I was younger: something wholly separate from real life. Something that I enjoy living in.
The book opens on a pub somewhere along the Thames, near Oxford, where the local townsfolk gather to tell and hear stories. As beginnings go it’s only a few steps over “once upon a time” but it works. It sets the tone and the expectation: this is a capital-S Story . And by knowing itself, its medium, and its limits, Setterfield gives us permission to get utterly lost and captivated in it.
A difference, though, between this book and an actual fairytale is how it weaves in and out of fantastical elements. You can read it most literally as a piece of historical fiction, or more fantastically as a piece of light urban-fantasy set in the past.
The core of the story is people: the big cycles of life and death, and the smaller infinite little plots that make up our lives, our families, and our communities. This book never loses focus on the individuals, which reminds me of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series of novels. At times, the characters seem villainously evil and heroically chivalrous or noble, but archetypes have a place in stories.
Each character seems a little reduced to one trait which dictates everything they do: maternal love, selfish greed, parental guilt, financial gain. It’s a story about people, but those people seem a little simplified at times.
Still, I love a character-focused book. I love going page-to-page asking how would people like this react in a situation like that? Like a fairytale, it’s analogous to life: it gives us tools to recognise and understand the actions of people around us, and Setterfield does this well.
So I mean it in no belittling way when I say that Once Upon A River is a lovely book.
It doesn’t try to introduce new ideas, cunning literary devices, or poetic prose. Sometimes you need this no-nonsense “imagine these people doing these things” story.
There are still moments of gentle beauty and fantastical elements. The language is florally embellished in places, as if it were a well-crafted tale being told aloud to you in a pub in the early 1900s. It’s never self-indulgent, either - the language or words never distract or get in the way.
There are certainly a few times where characters seem to transform or shift in a moment. It’s like they were vehicles towards the resolution of the story: for there to be a happy ending they must accept that this child isn’t their daughter, or to be in love one must let their fears go. I did take particular issue with one character who, for very personal and rational reasons, decided that she did not want to have a child - but abandoned those beliefs when she met the right man. A narrative that queer/asexual and anti-children people often face. The “you just haven’t met the right man” argument. It maybe would have been nice for the woman to not want children and realise it’s because she wasn’t maternal, or maybe was queer - and resolve the story that way. Setterfield had the chance to break an expectation or convention yet still fulfil a fairytale ending, sort of like a genie, but instead she took the predictable and easy route. But I can’t criticise a book too harshly for wanting to stick to what’s already known, and for sticking to its genre. Still, its a missed chance for more representation.
On some deeper level, I think having the characters change so quickly is a nice reminder that sometimes we need to only give ourselves permission to change our beliefs or our action. But I think I’m looking into that a bit too much.
It was a nice read, a nice escapism read. It’s a book I’m going to remember because of how it made me feel, not because of the characters or writing. A good solid read for when you need something palatable and easily digestible. 3 ⭐