Once Upon An Island – Joseph Canning | Historical Novel Set In 1940s Rural Essex

I’m ever-grateful for becoming a book blogger as I’ve read so many wonderful books because of it. It’s encouraged me to try out new genres and get out of my reading comfort zone. I’ve also found some great Essex authors – I love being able to support local people. The latest of these Essex authors is Joseph Canning, whose first novel Once Upon An Island explores life for Essex dwellers in the 1940s.

***AD: This post features press samples but all thoughts are my own***

Title image for Essex authors book Once Upon An Island


“An elegiac tale of a defiant friendship and a doomed love affair. When runaway Richard Wigboe returns to his island home after 19 missing years, it is to await the woman he loves from whom he was separated in a Japanese civilian internment camp. Turned away by his embittered father, Ben, he finds a friend in his lonely teenage step-brother Joe Coe. Set in the wilds of Eastern England in 1947, the cast of characters includes two female artists, a half-mad eccentric landowner, a shy bachelor and a displaced Polish soldier seeking the girl who has borne his baby.”
(Taken from Goodreads)

My Review

Once Upon An Island by Joseph Canning is an interesting tale. I actually dedicated quite a time to really reflect on it, rather than going straight into the review like I sometimes can with other books. At over 200,000 words it’s a beast and contains so much story.

Normally I’m one to shy away from large tomes with many things going on, but there was something about this book that felt different. I loved it straight away, especially the environment and Joe as such a curious main character. He’s young, just 16, and knows only his life on the farm, meaning that he often has sheltered viewpoints lacking perspective. He’s obsessed with women and often comes out with such crude and thoughtless observations. However, you can’t help but like him for his redeeming features and he is so well developed throughout the course of the book. Many of his experiences are learning curves and he goes from an immature boy to an insightful young man.

The author mentioned to me before reading that the book would not be considered PC, with the realities of rural life during the war far from sugar-coated. I really respected this about the book, as it doesn’t glamorise or romanticise anything. It’s quite a rare thing to see. Norsea itself is bleak and unforgiving, based on Osea Island in Essex. Very familiar to me, living in my own rural corner of Essex! The characters experience a harsh and sometimes intolerable life and Canning really does tell it as it was.

Cover image for Once Upon An Island by Joseph Canning

The thing I found most curious, but positive, was the structure. There’s no clear plot with Once Upon An Island – no particular goal or destiny for Joe to reach. Instead, it covers a period of time in his life and what he encounters. This leads to numerous different sub-plots that are all so interesting and diverse. There’s always something going on, and things often appear to end and are then later revisited. I thought it was great – because there isn’t an obvious endpoint you never know what’s going to happen and it’s hard to predict the twists and turns.

I loved the writing style, too. It’s fitting of the era and beautifully descriptive. It was hard not to have an incredibly clear picture of Norsea in my mind, and reading felt so immersive. Sentences can be quite long, with lengthy conversations and vivid illustrative elements, but this didn’t put me off. Chapters are usually quite short and everything about it is just so interesting. You get to know each character as if they were real, and because of that you can’t help but need to know what happens to them. I regularly found myself reading way past where I’d said I’d stop, with cliffhanger endings pulling me in further.

Aside from Joe, I really enjoyed reading about his step-brother Richard and his experiences during the war. He was a fascinating character and he brought so much meaning to the story. I loved the descriptions of Joe’s mother, a bitter and seething woman who was just so dimensional, and of course many of the other eclectic characters that the reader gets to know throughout the story. None of them felt flat in any way – character development is noticeably one of Canning’s strong points and this was apparent throughout the whole book.


Final Thoughts

Admittedly, I was nervous about Once Upon An Island for the size. But, I was far more engaged with it than I thought I would be. At no point did it feel lengthy or tedious though, with such an intriguing story contained within. The only thing I didn’t like was the cover, as I felt it didn’t quite convey the right vibe.

Everything else was wonderful though, and it was a joy to experience the lives of so many characters. It’s the sort of story that would work really well as a TV series – there are so many plot threads, but each one is fascinating and brings its own charm. History fans will particularly enjoy this book for its devotion to accuracy and realism, as will anyone that loves “fly on the wall” type novels that allow you to really get a glimpse of the lives of others.

Purchase Links

If you’d like to purchase a copy of Once Upon An Island then you can do so here:

Once Upon An Island by Joseph Canning – Amazon UK
Once Upon An Island by Joseph Canning – Amazon US

Author Bio

“I am a retired journalist, having spent thirty-five years in the business, working on morning daily and evening newspapers in Britain and Canada. I still write more or less full-time. Once Upon An Island was my first novel. It is written about places that exist and characters I knew – I grew up along the estuary and in the village I describe. I also paint in oils. I am married, live in a leafy part of Stockport.”
(Taken from

Have you read any books by Essex authors, or authors local to you before? Share below, and don’t forget to like and pin if you enjoyed this review! You may also like the following books, also by Essex authors:

Life Beyond The Castanets by Jean Roberts – Second Book Of Life In Spain
Wandless by James Batchelor – Experimental Fiction Novella
No Tigers, No Lions by Brenda Cox – Practical Anxiety Guide

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