THE FROZEN THAMES by Helen Humphreys (McClelland & Stewart), 186 pages, $24.99 cloth. Rating: NNN
Helen Humphreys can do what ever she wants she's that good.
So if, instead of giving us a full-fledged novel with an emotional narrative arc, she wants to write a series of flash fictions short-short stories with lush language representing each of the 40 occasions that the Thames River froze over, that should be fine with any of her fans.
Each story, none longer than five pages, has its own angle as Humphreys imagines 40 different situations walking with Queen Elizabeth I, for example, or meeting up with a lover and discovering she's got the plague or nearly drowning in the thaw. They're all drenched in her powerfully poetic prose, the kind that makes you feel the chill that's setting into every character's freezing bones.
Anglophiles will love it, especially those thirsting for well-researched historical material. The deep freezes take place during a period between 1142 and 1927 Humphreys writes that a rebuilt London Bridge hastened the river's flow in such a way that it never froze after that. Over the course of the book we track, among other things, the ice skate's technological development, various frost fairs that took place on the frozen river and the etymological background to key words related to ice.
The presentation is strange. On the upside, reproductions of images of the frozen Thames through the centuries illustrate the text. On the downside, the book itself is a miniature and hard to handle; the slip of a sleeve keeps falling off.
Humphreys, in her author's note, describes the book as a meditation on the nature of ice. As such, it's a little, well, cold, and I miss the mystery and longing that make her other fiction so compelling.
But, like I said, she can do whatever she wants.