Once Upon a River | Book Review

I’m super late on reviewing this book but here it’s finally here! I read this book earlier this year when there was a lot of hype around it. It seemed like everyone on my Instagram absolutely LOVED this book and the intertwining stories of the characters.

I definitely didn’t feel that way – I thought the story dragged, the characters were unemotional and it was honestly difficult for me to tell them apart. But before we get into it, here’s the background (from Goodreads):

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.

When I read that I was immediately hooked. My initial impression was that this book would be some sort of supernatural mystery that would keep me turning page after page. I’d say there are two main reasons why I didn’t enjoy the books:

It Dragged.

This book took me almost three weeks to read because I just couldn’t read it beyond a couple of chapters at a time. There were so many characters and everybody got their “screen time” at the expense of a plot moving forward. A quarter of the book is a giant lead up to a disappointing “reveal”.

By the time you read the end, where interesting events actually transpire, you don’t even have the energy to feel excitement. You just want to get it over with.

I wasn’t interested in the characters.

There were a wide array of characters in this story. I just didn’t feel like I related to any of them, nor was I interested in their personal story arcs. The few that I was interested in, I felt like the book took too long to give a “reveal”. Some of them don’t even get a resolution, or you don’t really understand their background story at all. I also felt like many of the characters were indistinguishable from each other. They are all very different but when you’re reading, the content could be for any one of them.

I think part of this is due to the writing style. It doesn’t particularly lend itself to getting emotionally invested in the characters. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is beautiful but in such a way that you’re always aware that this is just a story. There’s a sort of detachment involved as if someone is telling you a story they heard from someone else. Which, given the contents of the book might have been the point but it just didn’t work for me.

This book reminds me of novels you are assigned to read in English class. I almost felt like there should have been study questions at the back, asking students to discuss overall themes and foreshadowing. It is very “literary” with that classic-y feel to it.

In the end, I rated it 1/5 stars. Better luck next time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s