Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.


The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.


It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.


The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.


After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.


Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.


12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.


In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.


In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.


Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.


In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.


Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.


A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.


Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.


Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.


Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.


Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!


28 thoughts on “Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

  1. I was on my toes trying to figure out what you were making, and I never spoil things by looking ahead, so what a surprise! Vanessa, I would never in a zillion years thing of such a thing as a carrot & radish scone!! How fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? It was such a fun combination, unexpected, and totally delicious. With the amount of soups and stews that I know you make in the winter, these would likely go very well. They are among my favorite things I’ve made. Thanks, Mollie!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First time to your blog and what a fun concept. The book sounds great and the food looks wonderful but a lot of work (I’m a disaster in the kitchen to be frank). I’ll have to stick with the story and microwave snacks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much and welcome! I know a lot of people who say they are not good in the kitchen, and I in fact used to be one. Haha! I’m just glad you’re here and I will do my best to continue providing culinary and literary entertainment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a great book. I will have to put it on my list. The scones sound interesting too-I love radishes. I think you should be picky about what you read. If you waste time on a crappy book, that is time you will never get back! I attempted a book review for my latest post too-definitely not a time waster! Ciao, Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I believe this came out very good, but I’m a big radish fan as well. If you try them, let me know how they come out for you. And thank you for validating my belief that reading bad books is a waste of time. I’m glad there are others out there who feel this way. I try not to be such a snob because I worry that I’m missing out on good books, but I generally know a good book when I start reading it or when it’s bad.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I LOVED this book. It was amazing on audio as well. Did you read her The Thirteenth Tale? If not, you might want to check it out. And I have *everything* in the house to make these scones (I’d have to sub big carrots, but no problem) — They would go wonderfully with the soup I’m making tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Beth! I did read The Thirteenth Tale, and Bellman and Black, and loved them both. Such an evocative writer and she adds elements of the supernatural in such a unique way. If you make the scones, let me know how they turn out for you! I loved them but I may be biased. 😉


  5. Scones… another sale, future, for the book… the premise seems direct but not banal, I hope as rich as you describe and recommend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did not find it banal at all, though there certain fairytale tropes and elements that could perhaps be thought of that way. To me, the beautiful poetic language is what made the book stand out. And of course the scones were quite delicious and savory and unique. But I might be biased.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I initially was a bit skeptical, but these scones are really so delicious. I think the key is roasting the vegetables. When they’re raw, they have that very green flavor but roasting them really mellowed them out.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad you reviewed this book! Inwas wondering about it after seeing so many positive reviews. I love fairy tales, so I’ll try this one.

    The recipe does sound and looks delicious. Unique to anything I’ve ever cooked too! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jen! It is reminiscent of a fairy tale but it’s also very grounded in reality. I can’t describe it any better than that, but I think you will love it. It’s a beautiful beautiful read.

      Liked by 1 person

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