A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science? – Goodreads
This book had a lot of things that I knew I would love if got right, and hate if got wrong. Murder mystery – check. Historical – check. Just enough fantasy to make you question things – check. These things Once Upon a River got right, it was a few of the other things it didn’t do as great. There were highs, and there were lows – like a river. The pace was slow and steady that could bore people as it meanders and lose them before it speeds up – like a river. There is a lot of a river metaphors (there’s a whole sex scene of them, more on that).
First, what I did love. The main plot. The central driving force of the narrative is the mystery surrounding a little girl who was found dead, but later revealed to actually be alive and who no one can figure out for sure where she came from and who she belongs to. Complicating matters is the fact there’s three families with missing little girls in the area whom she could belong to – The Vaughns, The Armstrongs, or Lily White. I loved the interactions surrounding this plot, the tension and awkwardness. I loved the settle hints of fantasy that crept into the plot the further it went on. I also really enjoyed how it was like the central tributary from which all the subplots sprung and then formed back together again. Seeing how the plot worked out and fit together was just as fun for me as it being resolved.
In terms of the characters themselves; Mrs. Vaughn’s reaction to the found little girl and her husband’s were particularly interesting to read about (In that they drove me mad, but I wanted to read more). I also loved the character of Robert Armstrong, the animal loving son of a black servant and a member of nobility. I would have loved to have kept with his story line more, but understandably he wasn’t intended to be a major character (still did not stop me from picturing him as Idris Elba and I think that’s a contributing factor as to why I wanted him to be in the book more).
There are a lot of characters and moving players in this book to keep track of. It wasn’t that I was getting them confused, it was because there were such long periods in the book between their mentions that I was forgetting who they were. Major reveals weren’t as impactful because I forgot that was supposed to be a name I was supposed to know and be shocked by. The book does get credit for this, however. I’m normally really good at keeping characters in line (I scoff at people who say there’s too many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; come on people there’s multiple family trees you could use in the back).
Two characters that I felt I was supposed to like and be rooting for were the nurse Rita and the photographer Daunt. I just didn’t care about them. I would have liked to know more about Daunt and explore areas that weren’t romantic, but he sort of slipped into the role of romantic lead to Rita’s opposite and from then on that’s what his plot revolved around. Also, Rita’s characterization felt odd to me, she was presented one way and then drastically shifted to acting another with no real explanation for it other than Daunt was around now. On their own I really enjoyed both characters, but the fact that their stories seemed to divulge into just being about their romance turned me off.
Also they both seemed weirdly invested with this child and there was never any explanation, even fantastical, given as to why. I can easily put together my estimation as to why their story line resolved the way it did, but I would have preferred the author to shed a little light on it. This is especially in regard to Rita who throughout the book expresses not only a disinterest in giving birth but also a fear of it, then suddenly is in dire need of wanting a child. If her fairytale ending is that she realized she really wanted a child after all after just holding one, I’m even more disappointed than originally.
Taking Daunt and Rita out, I thoroughly enjoyed how the book ended. At the start and throughout the book the narrator presents the novel as a fairytale. Like one of the stories the regulars would give in the Swan (the pub featured heavily in the book). I have a weakness for books that present like this, to be honest. As I mentioned, there’s just enough fantasy for the story to seem like an exaggeration (if you believe it or not) and the end follows along like the ending of a storybook, pulling the threads together in a neat little bow.