Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

The first thing to recognize about this book is that it is really more poetry than prose. Not in a technical sense; but in feeling, The Frozen Thames is wonderfully, hauntingly poetic. It is structured as a set of written snapshots, one per year that the Thames river froze over in the heart of London (England, not Ontario). They are presented in chronological order. Some of them are very short, under 250 words. The only constant between them is the river, the ice, the cold. Some are descriptive, without a protagonist. Most have unnamed protagonists, some from the first person, some from the third. They are people from all walks of life, from peasants to nobles, children, adults, the elderly.

This book is wonderful, and I am in awe of it, and tremendously glad I read it. My copy was the library's, but I am considering purchasing it for myself, because it feels like something I should own.

While I was in the midst of reading the book, I took a walk along our local iconic river with a friend. The river had frozen when the levels were quite high, and as the water levels dropped the ice was draped over surfaces now a fair height above river level, including the paths alongside. The two of us walked mostly on this ice. Sometimes it was that brown milky colour of natural ice, sometimes snowcovered, sometimes perfectly clear and we could see underneath to gravel and leaves that were still green and frozen in motion. On the way back to the parking lot, we walked on a pathway that was still under waterlevel, between two ponds. We could hear the ice shifting and cracking beside us and beneath us as we passed.

I thought about The Frozen Thames the entire time we walked along the river and I think it lent me some of its mysterious, melancholy and awe-inspiring feeling. The connection turned a simple walk into an experience.

I like this book because it can do that for me. I also like it because Humphreys doesn't just focus on the very human aspects of a river freezing once per generation -- the fear, the wonder, the pain, the despair. She also invokes the reader's wonder at the event, at nature being so unpredictable, powerful, merciless, beautiful. She invokes a sense of the implacable march of time, the arc of history having absolutely nothing to do with a frozen river and yet the river is a lens through which we can understand different moments in time. It's hypnotic.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did you return this to the library? I would like to read this, I think.

kiirstin said...

I did, but I can get it out again without any trouble. Although as I said, it might be a nice one to buy. It's a pretty little book, too.

Nymeth said...

I loved this review, and I so want to get my hands on this book. After your last paragraph in particular, how can I not get it?

kiirstin said...

It's a very quick read, and well worth it. Since you have a little bit of snow right now, it might be an especially good time to read it!

tanabata said...

Oh dear! I picked this up and admired it in the bookstore when I was in Victoria last month but I didn't end up getting it. After reading your wonderful review, I so regret it!

Marg said...

There are a couple of this authors books that I would be interested in reading at some point.

kiirstin said...

I think I first heard about this book in particular while listening to CBC radio -- one of the arts programs was interviewing Humphreys about a play that has been made out of her book "Wild Dogs". I haven't read anything else by her, but I might pick up that one next.