Attempting to articulate why Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin skyrocketed to one of my Top 3 Books Of All Time list requires hand gestures. It fills your heart only to smash it then piece it back together all wrong, the aorta doesn’t go there, but then you start to like how it feels to beat differently, to doubt time and death. If this book could talk it might say: Here, have a laugh. Let me re-fill that haughty heart of yours. Whoops, dropped it again, you didn’t need it anyway.
There is no way to do this book justice. So here’s my crappy review of an astounding novel.
We begin with what is possibly the prettiest 1-page prologue ever written. It’s hard to think of other contenders as I don’t usually gain much from prologues. This one insists you ascend. It wipes out any preconceptions you may have that the New York City of this story is anything like the one you think you know.
In seeing the city skyline for the first time from a boat, a group of hopeful immigrants on a foggy night observe:
Unable to see the land, they thought that America was a glowing island reaching infinitely high from the middle of a gentle sea.
Sometime during the Belle Epoque, the white horse escapes his Brooklyn home again. This time he runs over the bridge to Battery Park where a white cloud sits just beyond a gate. Maybe the horse knows this cloud can and will move through the city and take those whose time is up with it, but he’s distracted. A man, Peter Lake, launches himself over the gate half-dead, and the gang of dummies on his tail look like they’re ready to finish the job.
Though Peter Lake’s NYC is not the one I know, his sentiment after first arriving is one most New Yorkers could probably relate to:
…he was now lost in a long and magnificent dream.
But after betraying a gang that he never wanted to belong to in the first place, that dream becomes an endless reality of hide and run. That is, until he meets the white horse with infinite eyes and decides it’s time to change his life.
Beverly is the beautiful daughter of The Sun’s super rich publisher. She’s dying of the slow fever known as consumption. Unable to stand indoor temperatures, she spends her nights staring at the stars, thinking in equations she never learned.
There was no finer choice, no finer choir, than the stars speaking in silence to the many consumptives silently condemned, a legion upon the dark and hidden rooftops.
Peter falls in love with the dying girl and when what happens to the dying happens, he is lost and reckless. But that’s only the first of the four parts. You finish Part One and wonder what Helprin can possibly fill the rest of the pages with. Isn’t the story done? Nope, it gets bigger, expanding from one man’s struggles to another’s search for a just city, to the mechanisms within that keep such a city running, to the man who understands those mechanisms like no other. Until our notion of time itself seems full of holes and too narrow to be true.
Speaking of cities, apparently all once had their gates and huge impenetrable walls to protect those within from the wilds outside. It is suggested that although people can penetrate those walls,
their spirits … cannot, and are left like orphans around the periphery.
You wonder if Virginia will be able to enter NYC with her baby and spirit intact, after leaving the comfort of home so her mother would have enough food for the winter. Later and elsewhere, a man goes temporarily mad when a woman brushes up against him. If you let it, these interwoven characters will submerge you. The dense white cloud fades into rumor, but it’s always there.
Some of the places in this New York seem only half real. Others are made magical by Helprin’s skill. Written in 1983, it’s no wonder the author writes Brooklyn as a brutal hell on Earth. The story spans the 20th Century and beyond the new Millennium. Helprin seamlessly moves from a historian to a futurist, and the reader is left with the strange understanding of what it would be like to be lost in time.
With chapters like “A very short history of the clouds” you have to go wherever this story wants to take you. Do take your time with this one. There are sentences throughout that are so well composed, so precise and poetic that you have to slow down or you’ll miss too much.
I was affected by every aspect of this book – the stories, language, ideas and imagery. It’s not possible to overstate how good Winter’s Tale is. I usually only buy books to give them to other people, but I ran out and bought my own copy of Winter’s Tale (after the library asked for theirs back), and I may have slept with it beneath my pillow once or every night. They really should make front covers fluffier.