Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand.
by Gioconda Belli
The Frozen Thames
by Helen Humphreys
First aired on NPR March 6, 2009
A novel by a former Sandinista about life with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and a series of vignettes about the forty times in seven centuries the river Thames has frozen in winter: questions of creation and transformation are dramatized in these two new works of fiction.
Creation first, yes? Nicaragua-born fiction writer Gioconda Belli, in her new novel, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, treats the subject of our First Parents, which is how I like to think about them--Adam and Eve, that is--and her book is a sort of biblical science fiction. The pages go from one great first-time event in human life to another--first awareness of us having minds, first time we cry, first orgasm, and the first onset of menses and the invention of sushi (Adam and Eve discover raw fish), the first fishing net (which the first couple cleverly surmises from the shape of a mushroom), the first clothing and the first work of art (Eve makes a cave painting to celebrate Adam's first hunting expedition), and then comes the first human experience of winter and childbirth. Belli performs all this with a deftness and clarity that often reminds me of Doris Lessing's inventiveness at its best. After this novel, you won't read the book of Genesis in the same way again.
Canadian writer Helen Humphreys deals in her lovely prose experiment, The Frozen Thames, with a kind of creation: the way that water turns to ice in winter--in forty winters to be exact, forty winters over the course of seven centuries. Over and over again the Thames freezes, birds freeze and fall from the air, and Londoners face the cold and danger and pleasure of river ice. Boatmen lament the loss of free-flowing water, the poor sometimes freeze in midcrossing, lovers embrace there, plague victims suffer there, royalty celebrates this mystery of physics and chemistry. As Humphreys has a lady-in-waiting soliloquize to the thirty-two-year-old Queen Elizabeth I in the mid-1600s, "The ice is new to us. The old ways of behaving don't seem to apply here. It is as though, in the very fact that the river froze, anything else might suddenly become possible as well." Reading this inventive little volume, with a bit of a shiver, you know what it must have been like for Adam and Eve to see ice for the first time.
Alan Cheuse is the author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, and a memoir, Fall Out of Heaven. His most recent publication is a book of travel essays, Trance after Breakfast, which is excerpted in this month's Notebook section (see page 7). Cheuse serves as book commentator for NPR's evening newsmagazine, All Things Considered, and is a member of the writing faculty at George Mason University. He has been sharing his "Off the Air" columns with WLT since 2005 (www.alancheuse.com).