I loved this tale of magical realism set along the Thames in 1887. It is atmospheric storytelling at its best. Like a river, it was meandering, with lots of different tributaries and currents, but with an overall direction that went somewhere.
Once Upon a River centers around a storytelling pub called The Swan, where a girl was brought in who was found drowned in the river. But wait a minute, she came back to life again! Had she really been dead? Who was she? Multiple people come forth to claim her as theirs, but who does she really belong to? It takes a while and a lot of back story on many characters to sort this out. The answer was not what I suspected.
The writing here is old-time storytelling at its best. It has the feel and pacing of a fairytale, but is set too firmly in a historical setting for you to feel it just to be fantastical. And what seems magical maybe is just ignorance, superstition, or projection appropriate for the time period. As with great storytelling suspending your disbelief here is effortless.
I liked some of the characters, especially family and animal loving Mr. Armstrong, and Rita the midwife. I listened to this book on audio, which added significantly to my appreciation of it, with each character told in different intonation, in great storyteller style.
I recommend this genre-bending yarn. A bit of a moody, misty mystery, slightly fantastical, and with totally excellent and satisfying writing, I give this unique read 5 stars.