Small books and large achievements

There is much to admire Helen Humphreys’ writing. Sustained lyricism that rarely escapes control and a gift for precise and vivid imagery are surely chief among them. But Humphreys’ evident belief, a distinctly minority one, that less is more—a Humphreys book does not top 200 pages—is well worth praising too. Her newest, The Frozen Thames (McClelland & Stewart), is vintage Humphreys: 186 pages, including the image credits, containing 40 exquisitely carved micro-tales, each corresponding to one of the 40 recorded times the Thames has been iced over from 1142 to 1895.
What’s new to the mix is the confusion she’s sown among booksellers and bestseller list compilers. Is The Frozen Thames fiction or non-fiction? (M&S is happy to play it down the middle, calling it ”groundbreaking and genre-bending” without further elaboration.) It doesn’t seem that hard a call to me. The freezing-overs are real and properly dated, and some of the events may well be historical too, but Humphreys is inside her characters’ heads: fiction. Still, the resulting even split (more or else) on the fiction or non-fiction question must please the author: her book is meant as a meditation on the nature of ice, one of the natural world’s great shape-shifters. It’s a rare pleasure to see a writer so completely, and deservedly, successsful in her aims.

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