A dreamy, poetic evocation of winters past.
As far back as records have been kept, the river Thames, which flows through Oxford, Reading and, of course, the heart of London, has frozen solid only 40 times. For each of these, Canadian poet and novelist Humphreys (Coventry, 2009, etc.) offers a single, delicate vignette, taking delicious poetic license with both grand events and the minutiae of history. The stories begin with the earliest record of a freeze, in 1142, when Queen Matilda made a desperate escape across the ice from her long-besieged castle in Oxford. They continue up to 1895, when ice floes as thick as seven feet crowded the river but it was clear, writes Humphreys, that “the Thames would never, will never, freeze solid in the heart of London again.” (Causes: the new London Bridge, which allowed the water to flow more freely, and the dredging of a deeper river channel.) Between these historical bookends the author presents 38 more vivid, intimate sketches of people confronted with the cold, all related in the present tense. A wife marooned indoors by the frost in 1784 passes the time by perfecting her recipe for jugged hare. Two children escaping the plague in 1666 emerge from their quarantined house into a “cold and beautiful” world. In 1789, a sudden thaw kills a husband and wife who good-naturedly permit a ship’s captain to attach his vessel by cable to their house’s main beam. A miller’s son revives a flock of frozen birds with the warmth of his breath in 1809. In each anecdote, Humphreys expands and improvises on a fleeting moment from a life long past. The characters, often unnamed and many captured in first-person monologues, have a presence far more substantial than the 1,000-odd words allotted to them. Images and themes recur throughout: the Frost Fairs erected upon the frozen river, the groaning of the ice.
Forty vibrant protagonists give depth and variety to this magical collection.