Reviewed by Erica Ball
A loving exploration of the inner world, told through the beings of Hindu mythology
The Once Upon a Time of Now is a spiritual or metaphysical novel, telling the story of Agnes, a young girl with an adventurous nature and the tendency to collect small items and carry them in her pockets.
One day, Agnes and her stuffed elephant friend G are swept away on a grand adventure in a mystical forest. There they meet new friends and amazing beings of many kinds as they find themselves on a quest to a mysterious Lost Temple. As they make their way through strange lands, they come to realize their journey is also one of learning and transformation for themselves and their new friends. In fact, their trek to the Lost Temple is interwoven with the world of Hindu mythology: from the beings they meet to the lessons they learn.
Every character met in this world is drawn from the Hindu pantheon and seeks to impart their ancient wisdom to the band of friends, especially young Agnes. Some of these mystical creatures teach through stories, some try to explain through examples and metaphors, and some even have specific meditations they guide the group through. As Agnes and G change through these interactions, they learn more about themselves, the universe, and their place in it.
One potentially important note is that there is a very helpful guide to some of these figures at the back of the book. Readers unfamiliar with Hindu characters, concepts, and traditions would gain much from referring to it before and during reading.
Agnes, herself, is a lovable young protagonist, with relatably childish habits and quirks, and the reader comes to find she is brave, funny, and kind. But the heart of the story may be the character of G. Beginning as a beloved stuffed animal, G transforms during their journey in a way that is mysterious, wonderful, and truly epic.
The author’s descriptions are vivid, lush, and evocative, with many unexpected turns of phrase, which is fitting for depicting an incredible world and its otherworldly inhabitants. It is packed with imagery, supernatural concepts, and allusions to the vast world of Hindu myth. Some readers may find the at-times rapid switching from one descriptive metaphor to another confusing, so slower, more careful reading is suggested. The chapters are quite short, encouraging this pace of reading, similar to an approach to poetry rather than a typical narrative.
With a slower pace and much discussion of mystical and metaphysical concepts, it’s a read recommended for those who enjoy ruminating on the big questions of life and existence. Readers who seek out unconventional story structures and complex discussions of spiritual subjects will find much to sink their teeth into. Of course, some familiarity with Hindu mythological traditions would help in recognizing the characters and understanding their particular teachings, but that is not at all necessary for enjoying the story.
Overall, it’s a story of the timelessness of the inward journey, as imagined through the lens of an ancient tradition. It is about the universes within each of us and the understanding and mastery of oneself. It delves into curiosity, creativity, persistence, and courage. But it is also about the impulses all living beings have in common and the ways in which they are interconnected in the external universe. It is a celebration of the mystery of existence and the unlikely miracle of being alive.
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