Book reviews: The River by Helen Humphreys (#landscapewriting)


“We tend to look at landscape in relation to what it can do for us. Does it move us with its beauty? Can we make a living from it? But what if we examined a landscape on its own terms, freed from our expectations and assumptions?”

I’ve long been interested by psychogeography, described by Guy Debord as “ “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” and in The River, published by ECW Presscelebrated author Helen Humphreys approaches a landscape familiar to her on its own terms, doing her best to shake free from her own subjectivity.

For more than a decade Huphreys has owned a small waterside property on a section of the Napanee River in Ontario. In the watchful way of writers, she has studied her little piece of the river through the seasons and the years, cataloguing its ebb and flows, the plantsm and creatures that live in and round it, the signs of human usage at its banks and on its bottom.

The River is a wonderful melange of art, history, geography, botany and much much more, by the modern version of the ‘flaneur’. Humphrey notices where she is and she notices what her location has to offer without EXPECTING anything from it. We are all connected though, us humans, the animals around us, the landscape and the air which surrounds it. Humphreys forensically details our human interactions with the world around us and their inevitable effects. She’s a fan of William Faulkner too and this shows beautifully in her own writing: Humphreys has a kinship with this writer whose own observations of the world around him retain a perennial freshness because his language moves with ‘the times’ in the widest sense.

Faulkner knows how to write about rivers and so does Humphreys and here, she observes a botanist collects flowers along the edges of an end of summer stream:

“The red flowers threaded along the stream are dying…The botanist crouches in the soft grass, inspecting the underside of the flower. It dies, the way darkness arrives- from the ground up. Soon only the topmast of the plant will be alive, lighting the waters edge like a torch…. Once inside the bag, the flames of the flower will be extinguished, and the botanist delays the moment of uprooting. He can feel in that moment something of his own ending; the flicker of his own pulse, darkening.”

We then learn that the botanist is accompanying James Cook on his cross ocean journeys, collecting flora and fauna. We read of Bligh and routines adhered to in order to mitigate the effects of Cook’s death, the bright capriciousness of a flower whose redness takes days to fade and we travel back and forth across time, cultures and place with Humphreys as she seeks to draw every last piece of inspiration from her own little place by a river.

Helen Humphreys is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, seven novels, and two works of creative non-fiction, including the bestselling The Frozen Thames. She has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.


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