on 23 February 2014
Whatever the pros and cons of the upcoming film may be (personally I have no intention of seeing it) one great thing to come from its release is that this wonderful book is now finally available on Kindle.
Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. However, the main two characters as far as I'm concerned (other people may find other characters grab their attention more) are Peter Lake - a kind hearted criminal on the run from one of his former gangs - and Beverly Penn - a consumptive girl who Peter meets and falls in love with while attempting to burgle her home.
The novel is one of the best examples of 'magical realism' I've encountered. The turn of the century New York in which most of the action takes place is evocatively described and many of the characters deal with very difficult and important issues in the real world and their thoughts and dilemmas are described by Helprin in very real terms. Almost everything, though, is shot through with magic and fantasy - from white guardian horses to after death returns of loved ones to physics defying pool shots - and so even the most realistic scenes are tinted by the background presence of magic.
Yes, it is rather long, and, yes, at times things get almost needlessly complicated and confusing, but stick with it and you'll find a very poignant and moving work that can be enjoyed on many levels.
on 20 September 2012
This book is epic in vision, ambition and size (673 pages of relatively small type in my edition). And a few days ago I very much doubted that I would hit my target of reading a book a week, but I finished it today, having spent all of yesterday reading. I did read the Lord of the Rings in two days (and all through one night), so I suppose finishing Winter's Tale wasn't a complete surprise. Whether I would have finished this book without the challenge is questionable. I might have given up, which would have been a shame as the book is worth the effort, I am grateful to my challenge for keeping me reading.
The book ranges in time from the late 19th century to the eve of the 21st. It is set in a fantasy New York, heaving with the poor dying in their hovels and gangs of thugs, overseen by hugely powerful newspapers and their magnates, full of energy, hope and despair. As someone who has never been to New York and who is unlikely to go, I felt that I missed a lot of the book's richness. There is a rave review from the New York Times review link here which gives you a New Yorker's take on the book.
The description on Amazon (above) is misleading. Peter Lake may be the main character of the book, but he disappears for the central part of it, and the love story with Beverly although enchanting is actually a minor part of the book. With Peter Lake removed from the story, the focus shifts to a larger cast of characters. Don't expect subtle characterisation in this book. With the exception of Peter Lake and the elderly newspaper owner Harry Penn, Halprin's characters are symbols, vehicles for forces of love, truth etc. The good are good, the evil are evil and there isn't that much of a focus on the latter.
In some ways New York is the central character in the novel, whilst the storyline is the pursuit of the ideal city. "To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through . . . gates far more difficult to find than gates of stone, for they are test mechanisms, devices, and implementations of justice.'' One gate is that of ''acceptance of responsibility,'' another is that of ''the desire to explore,'' still another that of ''devotion to beauty,'' and the last is the gate of ''selfless love.'' Does the ideal come at the end of the novel?
This book has been lauded as a great feat of magic realism, and compared to the wonderful One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have to differ - it is not as great as Marquez's masterpiece and I don't think there was a lot of realism in the book to make it a great magic realism book.
I found the book overly verbose. Like one of his characters the author uses all sorts of unusual words, which I found got in the way of understanding rather than illuminating. Halprin applies layer upon layer of description to the point where it was possible to skip several pages without missing any of the story. At first I really enjoyed his descriptions, but after a while found them tedious and at times not even very good.
It is nevertheless an impressive book, full of wonderful images, thoughts and imagination. The book reminded me of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and like Pullman's book had me loving it in parts and leaving me nevertheless unsatisfied.
This review first appeared on the Magic Realism blog
on 18 June 1999
If you plan to be shipwrecked on a deserted island, bring a toothbrush and this book. It's that good, and probably just that necessary. I've read 'Winter's Tale' like 6 times, and it keeps showing me new stuff. I'm not even clear on what it all means, really, but I don't think that matters. Helprin -- try to prove me wrong -- puts something gorgeous and profound and soul-pleasing in every single paragraph, if not every sentence. There's a glowing, resonant, orchestral familiarity in each romance, each caper, each heartbreak in this book; this is escapism of the rare sort that makes you believe that YOU CAN. And it's got a flying horse in it.
on 31 December 1998
This book was handed to me by my Mother who had grown up in New York. She loved it and encouraged me to read it as well. I happened to do just that as Winter came upon us in Maryland and it was as if I truly was on some roof watching the stars run across the sky. Now I live in California and this book brings the Fall and Winter seasons to me. I have not read such a beautifully descriptive author since Stephen R. Donaldson. Thank you Mark Helprin for this story. It's not long enough at all. The ending brings, "Somewhere in Time" to mind. I could even see Christopher Reeve playing Peter Lake if only... I'm pleased Mr. Helprin didn't leave it open to cash in on with endless additions. A Classic with very few others on my bookshelf.
I discovered this book through a song, the hauntingly beautiful "Beverly Penn" by The Waterboys (recently reissued as a piano demo for In A Special Place: The Piano Demos For This Is The Sea). I was intrigued by the lyrics which seemed particularly inspired, even by the high standards of that exquisite musical poet, Mike Scott. After reading the book, I discovered that the song movingly captures the essence of the main plot in this concatenation of stories. There are many threads, each one perfectly developed, taking place at times concurrently, but often in different spatial planes and it really takes the confident touch of a master story-teller to gather them and wrap up the whole wonderful unit in a most satisfying way, so that by the end, the reader feels that everything is right with this imaginary world, at least.
This is a challenging book to describe but the best I can do is to say that it takes me away to another dimension in which I can happily reside for hours at a time. It's fantastic but also brutally realistic, historically valid but also gloriously fanciful. The key character, Peter Lake, is one of the most likeable literary creations I have ever encountered. We grow to love his quirky personality and admire his unpretentious inner beauty. With the news that this book is about to be made into a movie, I am particularly nervous about the actor choice for Peter Lake. There are many other players in this large cast to grow fond of (my other particular favourite is, of course, Beverly) and even some truly funny interludes; in fact I could often imagine Helprin giggling quietly to himself as he had fun with his own creations. Perhaps, and for very different reasons, the true hero of the story is the horse Athansor, presented in all his glorious power but also, heartbreakingly, in a very different state ... but that would spoil the enjoyment, and this is starting to sound like a literary dissertation instead of a product review.
The sheer beauty of the writing would be reason enough to buy this book, but I really treasure its enveloping and transporting powers. A book to revisit often, to delve into layers that were not apparent the first time around. One final piece of advice: with nearly 700 pages, it might make sense to look for a hard-cover issue. I bought a used one in excellent condition.
on 14 February 2014
Winter’s Tale is a very complex novel. It’s main focus lies on New York City, but not the New York City we know. Not even New York City as it was around 1900, which is the time the first part of the novel is set in. Mark Helprin created his own version of this famous North American city we all know. If it doesn’t feel weird for you in Part I of the book, wait until you reach Part II. I was really confused! I had no idea what time I was in. Was that still the past (because the language and other details suggested that)? No it wasn’t, but where was I? If you try to find that out with the help of clues you usually pick up on the way, you’re lost. Well I was. I just started to accept it. This world is different even though it shares lots of similarities with ours.
Peter Lake for example. He looks human. He is human. If he would have had a better past, he might have become a normal, working-class citizen of New York. Things turned out a little different though and he starts to do things you can’t comprehend. You could call Peter Lake a main character, but I could be biased by the movie trailer. I’ve thought about it. There are so many characters in this novel. Every one of them is introduced in more than just two pages. At some point it got quite confusing to remember who was who. Many of these characters (e.g. Hardesty & Virginia) are very important and take up large parts of the novel. I can’t say if there really is a main character. What do you think?
As you can see, Winter’s Tale is a rather confusing adventure, but there is one thing that makes it worthwhile: the language! Okay, two. There’s also Athansor, the flying horse. If I had the time, and I hope I’ll have it someday, I would sit down and just read passages of the book for sheer pleasure. Mark Helprin can turn words into magic. Though I have to be honest with you. I did not fully understand Winter’s Tale, but as I’ve seen on the internet, there are many who didn’t, even after rereading it for the xth time. Do I think you should read it? Yes, if you have time on your hands. If you are terribly busy right now, read something light and get back to Winter’s Tale when you feel relaxed.
on 9 March 1999
If you've never read any of Mr. Helprin's books, this is the place to start. Magical, lyrical and unafraid to take risks, this is one of the most beautiful books you will ever read. I've lost about 4 copies of it to people I've lent it to. For those who find it elitist, I can answer only that Helprin, in all of his work, attempts to search for the transcendent, rather than the particular in our existence. Urban geography, class, race, gender all fade as particulars, cultural constructs of the time and place we live in. So, if those categories are the creatures of our culture and society, why are they any less real than the New York Helprin constructs? With "The Confidence Man," it is said that Melville gave up trying to strike through the page to the underlying truth of our existence, simply turning the mask outward to illustrate the unreadibility of modern existence. With Winter's Tale, Refiner's Fire, A Soldier of the Great War, and Memoir in Antproof Case, Helprin seeks to defiantly answer "NO!" to those who claim our lives are without meaning or significance. This is a book to read, love, savor and read out loud to anyone you care about. It will stay with you the rest of your life.
on 15 December 2009
When I first read this book over 20 years ago, New York really was a fantasy. Ticket prices were almost twice my monthly salary and I never dreamed of getting there in a million lifetimes. Winter's Tale was the closest I was ever going to get.
Fortunately, this energetic, almost religious work, by a man with an acknowledged interest in every pillar, post, brick and bottle of his city, well it's pretty damn close. He knows New York backwards, forwards and sideways - through time as well as space. And he picks characters out of its ether wherever he chooses and fashions them into diamonds.
It is not a fantasy novel. It's really not that cheap. It is written like a memory which might be a dream, as a mirage of a real city shifting in the mind, receding into a fog, tying itself within itself and emerging, clear, bright and hard, only to recede again. Its people and places are real New Yorkers and real New York, but they won't stay still.
If you are going to New York, read Winters Tale before you get there. If you have just been, read it when you get back. If you are never going, read it instead. It's beautiful.
on 23 December 1999
This book is one of the most irresistable dream-weavers I have ever had the pleasure to read. The characters spring to life and the stunning descriptions of scenery and architecture are so real you can touch them. This has to be one of my favourite ever stories. I read this book in the eighties , and have only found it again now - Thankyou Amazon
on 16 April 2014
It took a long time and it was hard work, but I finished it. I can tell nothing that it was about because I don't really know. Now it is finished I think I do have some understanding. I am sorry I can't say more. I think it is about love, universal balance, belief, time and continuity and, possibly, God. There is also a magnificent white horse.