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.
There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all.
Once Upon a River is a story about stories and storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s a little too caught up in its own lore. The narrator keeps pulling you out of the story to talk about stories, so it feels disjointed, and it interrupts the flow. Every time I get caught up in what’s going on, I feel like I’m pulled out to start over again. Eventually, once we stop talking about the story and just get to it, there is beauty to the descriptions of the river and how it plays its own character.
My favourite parts were the ones about Quietly, followed closely by the parts about Armstrong. Quietly is shrouded in lore and mystery, and exploring a local legend is always fun. I love Armstrong’s respect for all life – he has lived a life between families and places importance on the family you choose, not the one that blood defines.
Overall, this was a very slow start with a wonderful, magical last couple of parts – unfortunately, this left it feeling fairly average. I had high expectations, though, so this may be an unfair perspective…
As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.