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The Frozen Thames

by Helen Humphreys

In her newest book, Helen Humphreys imagines a river, and those who live on it, suspended by ice. Not just any river, but the Thames, a river that has frozen over 40 times in the past few centuries. In The Frozen Thames, Humphreys creates a semi-fictionalized vignette to coincide with each such occurrence. (Though the book is being marketed as a work of non-fiction, the narrative conceits that Humphreys employs clearly nudge it into fiction.)

Echoing the mood of Humphreys’ 2002 novel The Lost Garden, her new book is filled with voices and lives that are disconnected from the rest of the world by ice. When the Thames is frozen, its people feel separated from what is natural. One man, knowing the fever that has gripped him will surely kill him, lies on the ice and, believing the river will give him a new, different life, fights the friends who struggle to bring him to shore.

Some of the vignettes are narrated in the first person, but the strongest are those told omnisciently. Humphreys speaks for the long-dead, and her voice is the thread connecting the lives just as the river connects them. The spell is broken, however, when the point of view shifts to first person. All of the characters speak with Humphreys’ voice, and this consistency seems incongruous.

Otherwise, The Frozen Thames is spare but satisfying. Each of its episodes has within it the capacity to do what Humphreys did with the entirety of The Lost Garden: to speak of loss lightly but profoundly.