by Antony L. Saragas
Once Upon a Rhyme details a week in early February in the life of Dylan, known as ‘Oskie’, a forty-year-old who has recently lost his Father, Hollis. During the week, Oskie navigates highs and lows as he tries to reconcile the person he was, with the person he knows he should be.
Once Upon a Rhyme is an affecting and moving portrayal of a man trying to make sense of it all. It opens with Oskie wandering through his late Father’s house. His memories of Hollis and childhood meander with him and onto the page in a stream of remembrance that is deceptively well-constructed; slivers of backstory are tightly woven to essentially keep this on track and alight reader curiosity. This is no self-indulgent, subjective ramble but a quietly perceptive and well-observed piece of writing on the rotating nature of grief. If you have lost one or both parents, this passage and indeed, the book can be an emotionally tough read but nonetheless worth it; resonating painfully with a bittersweet poignancy yet also strangely comforting. Oskie’s voice is both convincing and absorbing from the start and this gift for deft character realisation carries through to all the others; especially D-Tay and Oskie’s adopted ten-year-old son, Turbo. Not only is the dialogue nicely distinctive but visually they are immediate in the reader’s imagination despite not much physical description begin given. This is testament to the skilfully nuanced writing.
However, the thread throughout this novella is the book of limericks that Hollis had written and which Oskie finds after his death; they are the glue that hold this week-long narrative together. Mr Saragas employs the poems and their sentiments at just the right times to provoke thought and pathos. Similarly, the dominant character running like a seam is actually Hollis; almost Banquo’s Ghost, if you will. Personally, despite his truisms underlining both Oskie and D-Tay’s ideologies, I wondered if there was a slight touch of resentment buried within Oskie at his Dad – maybe, maybe not, but good books make you puzzle, think and mentally expand the narrative and Once Upon a Rhyme certainly does that. It also tackles in a subtle, non-patronising way the subject of men’s mental health and their unwillingness or actual inability to open up even to a lifelong friend. Consequently, Oskie can be a little frustrating and is his own worst enemy despite having a deep sense of integrity and, the watchword of the book, empathy.
American sports, especially baseball, are the fabric of Once Upon a Rhyme and its characters. Mr Saragas has pitched (if you pardon the pun) the narrative very cleverly; if like me as an Englishwoman you know nothing, it’s a nicely involving framework without becoming tiresomely dense. If you are into baseball you will also find another dimension of enjoyment. There possibly could have been a touch more external conflict or twist in the narrative but the issues surrounding Pookie’s death are slowly explored and do provide some suspense.
Once Upon A Rhyme is an absolute gem of profoundly insightful and emotionally astute writing. Highly recommended.