Thursday, November 12, 2015

The River by Helen Humphreys

One of the things I'm going to have to do if I'm going to start updating again is be a little less rigid about how I update and when and for what. I used to go at this chronologically - that is, whatever I read first, I'd write about first. And I wrote about everything I read, regardless, except for the books I didn't finish. I have about 30 books I still need to write about, going all the way back to January of this year. I say "need" - but do I need to? Perhaps, at this point in my life and writing, the more appropriate criteria is "want" - which of these books that I have read do I most want to write about right now.

And right now, I want to write about The River.

The River
by Helen Humphreys
ECW Press, 2015
224 pages

I have an odd reading relationship with the work of Canadian author Helen Humphreys, and this is yet another entry into that ongoing weirdness. (The weirdness is with me, not her books.) Previous to The River I have read The Frozen Thames and loved it, and The Lost Garden and wanted to love it but had trouble with the subject matter and the prickly main character, Gwen. Humphreys tackles subject matters and writes characters that I find uncomfortable, and yet - I keep going back. I don't usually do this with authors who write characters I find uncomfortable or books that make me sad.

I'm going to keep going back to her, too. There's no question. Even though I know what I'm getting into.

I do this for the writing. Helen Humphreys is a poet and she writes prose like a poet. This will get me every time. I like good writing. A book doesn't tend to make it with me without it, regardless of how excited I am about the characters or the plot or the concept. And apparently really beautiful writing will draw me in regardless of how unexcited I am about the characters or the plot. So despite the detachment Humphreys writes with, and the often melancholy (sometimes very melancholy, sometimes downright sad) tone, and despite characters who can be hard to love, I read Humphreys.

The River itself is as odd a piece as The Frozen Thames, a book that defies cataloguers to put it in a specific place on the shelves. Our library has decided it is a biography. Of... a river I guess? Because that is what it is - a word portrait of a river. In short passages, some a few pages and some a single line, Humphreys introduces the reader to Depot Creek, specifically to a little plot of land - her little plot of land - on the banks of said Creek. Using this as a jumping off point, we are introduced to the creek itself, the Napanee River, the town of Bellrock, the people who have used the river and inhabited the land where Humphreys lives now, the wildlife that use the river, and so on. In some cases she just describes something - the river, the history, a creature on the river - and in others she has written pieces from the perspective of someone who may have existed, or who did exist. These would be fiction, but they're still trying to do the same thing that the nonfiction descriptive passages are: get to the heart of what the river actually is, what it truly means.

It's lovely. It's melancholy. It's a unique gem of a book. It's also beautiful as a physical item; the photographs and drawings strategically placed through the pages are perfect. This is not one to e-read; you will be much happier if you can have it in your hands. Recommended for anyone who loves beautiful words and is interested in history, natural history, and the attempt to peer into the heart of something so prosaic and so unknowable as a river. I didn't love it, because it's not exactly a loveable book. It's a bit prickly, a bit detached. But I will remember it and I will come back to it.