Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Review: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin today’s review I stay in the rut that I entered past Friday with a collection of fairy-tale-like short stories from the early 1940s (»»» read my review of Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen) and that now takes me to a work of magical realism with epic dimensions first published forty years later in 1983. With its over 600 pages Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin must be called monumental, if not lengthy, compared to the concise tales of the Danish almost-laureate of the Nobel Prize which carry nearly the same title borrowed from William Shakespeare. Mark Helprin’s story of the foundling Peter Lake and the white stallion Athansor builds a magical bridge between New York at the beginning and at the end of the twentieth century as well as between the realms of the living and of the dead to restore ultimate justice.

Mark Helprin was born in Manhattan, New York City, USA, in June 1947 to parents working in the film industry and at the theatre. In the early 1970s he did his studies at university and brought out his first collection of short stories titled A Dove of the East & Other Stories in 1975. Two years later he also made his debut as a novellist with Refiner’s Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling. After a break during which he served in the Israeli army he continued his writing career with a volume titled Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981). Several novels, most notable among them Winter's Tale (1983; now also published as A New York Winter’s Tale) and A Soldier of the Great War (1991), three children’s books later combined under the title A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy (2010) and the short story collection The Pacific and Other Stories (2004) followed along with essays and columns in different periodicals. The author’s latest published work is the novel In Sunlight and in Shadow dating from 2012. Mark Helprin lives on a farm in Earlysville, Virginia, with his family.

It’s an early morning a few years after 1900 when the Winter’s Tale begins in snow-covered New York.At the Battery a majestic white stallion watches a bunch of men chasing after a man to kill him, but he escapes through the gate. It’s then when the man called Peter Lake and the magical horse who is later on identified as Athansor from the myths of the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh in New Jersey meet for the first time and become life companions. Peter Lake is a burglar and on the run both from the police as well as from his gang, the Short Tails led by a mad criminal called Pearly Soames, that he betrayed to save the Baymen who had found him as a baby stranded in a wooden model of the ship City of Justice like a new Moses. He had been one of them until he had been of age to be further initiated into the secrets of their tribe and they thought it better for him to live among his own kind in New York. Before soon the twelve-year-old had been taken to a Home for Lunatic Boys where he had been trained to be a mechanic by Reverend Mootfowl. Innocently involved in the reverend’s death and knowing that he would be wanted for murder, Peter Lake had fled from the boys’ home and had got into the hands of Pearly Soames. Since he turned against him, he is hunted and on his own until he finds Athansor. On a winter night Peter Lake breaks into the house of newspaper owner Isaac Penn which he believes deserted and finds his beautiful daughter Beverly. It’s the beginning of an ardent love between the burgler in his thirties and the seventeen-year-old who is already marked by death from consumption. They pass Christmas at the vacation house of the Penns at the fictional Lake of the Coheeries up the Hudson river where Athansor can finally probe his magical powers. Already in spring Beverly dies and Peter Lake is left behind as a broken man, but somehow his loved one still protects him from Pearly Soames. Even when the Short Tails encircle him and Athansor they manage to escape… into a timeless white fog. Shortly before the new millenium they reappear, but their last fight is still to come.

New beginnings, which imply almost necessarily the rebirth or reinvention of a person in a new role or environment, play a central role in Winter’s Tale. Virtually all of the main characters with the exception of seemingly immortal Harry Penn and Pearly Soames, who link the decades between the novel’s first part set in the early twentieth century and the fourth, ie last part covering the amargeddon-like events of the approaching millennium, leave their past behind to make a fresh start into a new life in New York. Peter Lake experiences several such rebirths, the last one in a state of amnesia recalling the innocence and ignorance of a baby, while Beverly’s rebirth or resurrection after death is only spiritual as Peter Lake’s guardian soul. Altogether her role in the novel is that of the wise or the enlightened who stands above the material world. Another recurring theme of the novel is justice that the human mind can’t really grasp. The eternal yearning for ultimate justice, especially a city of justice, is represented in objects like the ship called City of Justice or the Maratta family’s golden salver which refers to a City of Justice, too. Mark Helprin tells his tale in a poetic language full of atmospheric pictures and unusual descriptions which are a mere pleasure to read although sometimes they are really longer than necessary so the average reader who cares for the story in the first place may feel a bit bored or even annoyed. Despite all quite a lot remains vague or open to interpretation like in a Saint’s legend or a sacred text. In fact, there’s much in the book that reminds of the Old and the New Testament (the Christian Bible) not withstanding that it also contains many elements of the modern historical, the fantastic and the dystopian novel.

All in all, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin has been a captivating, though long read which I enjoyed without being overly impressed. For me it was particularly intriguing to see how a writer of the 1980s imagined the turn to the new millennium, but there may be much more to the story than I can see after reading it only once. In any case the epic novel is worth the time reading it and therefore I recommend it.


  1. I salute you for your masterful summary. Though we had different levels of love for the book, I am glad to have read your review and thus to have revisited the book.

    1. Thanks for the praise concerning my summary... always trying my best to do the book justice without giving away to much. Yes, it's always nice to read what other readers think of a book.

      Thanks for your comment, Judy!


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