Back in the Before Times, my husband and I made friends with a retired couple who were regulars at a breakfast place we loved. You know how geek calls to geek, so our passing hellos and smiles quickly grew into book recommendations and story swapping and lots and lots of coffee. They’re delightful, and I miss breakfasts out and socializing and finding new readers/friends. SIGH. Anyway, this was a book that would never have made it on my radar, but my breakfast buddy gushed about it, and she was absolutely right.
In a stretch of countryside along the Thames in the 1800s, there’s a pub that attracts storytellers. While swapping tall tales one freezing winter solstice night, the drinkers are interrupted by the appearance of a sorely wounded stranger carrying a dead little girl. He shows up and immediately collapses, leaving them all to try and save him while also solving the mysteries: who is he, and who is she?
Things immediately get spooky, as the local nurse arrives to fix up the stranger and discovers that the frozen, drowned, not breathing little girl is actually not dead. It’s a miracle, but who is she? There are two possibilities: Two years ago, a young local couple’s two-year-old daughter was kidnapped. They paid the ransom, but she never reappeared. This little girl appears to be about four. Then, a farmer’s son thinks the little girl may be his daughter, but he was estranged from his now-deceased wife and doesn’t know what happened to the girl. Also, the housekeeper at the parsonage, who is majorly missing some of her marbles, insists that the girl is her little sister, even though the housekeeper is in her 50s and has no family that anybody knows of.
It could just be a story about the mystery of the child, and that would have been plenty. But it’s so much more! The side characters are so good, and I wanted to spend chapter after chapter with Rita, Mr. Armstrong, Bess, Mr. Vaughn’s mysterious psychic/therapist, and photographer Daunt. The writing just glows. It gets a little too far into the “love letter to the Thames” stuff, and it definitely wants the river to be its own character, but I just wanted more of the people.
I had a guess about who the little girl was, but by no means did I have everything figured out. This was a lovely journey, with an appealingly pragmatic take on the ‘sometimes life just absolutely sucks, and all you can do is go on’ philosophy. It feels like a fairy tale, but a proper fairy tale with some absolutely despicable villains and some really rotten things, but then also just some run-of-the-mill bumps in life. On the other side of the coin (page?), you get some heroic stuff, but then also just some run-of-the-mill good folk. Life happens, and sometimes it stinks, and sometimes it’s lovely, and a good story can help you make sense of it all.
P.S. Graunched means to crush or destroy in New Zealand, or to kiss and cuddle in South Africa! You have to read the book to find out which happens in this case.