On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.
Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.
Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.
Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.
Once Upon a River combines folklore, magic, and mystery with a Gothic feel. The author is, without a doubt, talented and certainly has a gift for prose and vivid details. That said, I came away from this one with mixed feelings. The book is character driven, and there are quite a lot of characters to keep straight as well as their very detailed backstories. On top of that, the story isn't just one story, but several that are interwoven, and with so many plots and subplots, it's a lot to keep up with. The biggest drawback for me is the pacing, which is too slow for my tastes. The story is lengthy, maybe a bit too much so and I found myself wanting to skim during overly long descriptions. With so much going on, I do think this one could work well on the big screen where we could be shown rather than the pages and pages of descriptive details. In the end, there is a solid story here, but I feel like some of it gets lost in the minutia.