I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Once Upon a River has the familiar feel of a wordy Britishy novel set in a vague past.
Even though the blurb tells you this book is about a mysterious little girl, she’s just the main motivator behind the other characters’ actions and doesn’t necessarily take part in the plot herself. We usually only hear about her through other people’s invented stories and imaginings, but that says more about the storytellers than it does about the girl.
So instead, this is the story of the series of families who coincidentally all lost a child of this age and appearance, and are wondering if this is her.
Therefore, there’s TONS of characters and side-plots; so the first half of the book is spent building up all of their background information and it’s only after the 50% mark that Once Upon a River really picks up and starts to hold your interest. There’s so, so many stories in here that I feel it would work even better as a binging TV mystery/drama, than as a nearly 500-page book.
After the halfway point, the two most interesting characters to keep your eye on are Rita, the unofficial doctor in town, and Henry Daunt, the photographer. It’s through them that this story finds its fuel and transitions from “creative gossipers blathering aimlessly at a small-town inn” to “wow it’s a shocking mystery novel now”.
Another very interesting character to keep an eye on is Mr. Armstrong; but he hides a lot about himself, and the connections that tie all of his stories together just take too long to coalesce. However, his whole story is very dramatic in the end and it’s worth waiting for.
Not really sure who I’d recommend this to since the book felt quite long and uneventful for the majority of it. If you’re willing to sit through 240 pages of exposition, the ending has quite a number of shocking, eyebrow-raising twists that are well worth it. And if you’re looking for the same gothic feel from The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield, you won’t really find it here, but it does have some of the same dark mystery feels.
p.s. This book uses the word “gypsies” multiple times, and the word “negro” at least once. It IS set in the past but I know some readers prefer to be informed anyway.
This book comes out on December 4th 2018!