Okay, so the rundown is as follows: Winter's Tale is a literary fantasy novel about New York and a strange series of harsh winters that alter the landscape and the people in them in a various number of ways. It goes back and forth between the beginning and end of the twentieth century and tells the story of the "Just City" of New York and of the people who will shape and alter it into something glorious and beautiful.
The good are a vivid, lyrical plotline; a well-imagined and well-built world, and distinct, relatable characters who populate that well-imagined world.
The bad are an occasional tendency to get disjointed and unstuck in time, and a slight chance of getting lost in all of that beautiful language (oh what a shame, etc.)
You should buy this book and read it. You have another few months to do so where its impact will grip you most. It's well worth any time and effort put into it, and will return that time and effort a thousandfold.
More, as always, below.
"I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me."
I'm not going to lie. I had a lot of trouble with this one. Not because it was bad, and not because reading it was a chore, but because sitting down to pick apart a book like this seemed wrong. I'm instantly reminded of my attempts with Ocean at the End of the Lane, though where that one was rooted mainly in a kind of nostalgia and a remembrance of books I used to read, this one is...different. There are very few books I've been relentlessly positive about-- even my all time favorites like Fool on the Hill usually wind up with a few wags of the finger, but this book...well, let me just get to it.
I was recommended this book several times, tirelessly, by some friends of my family, at least one of whom makes a point of reading it every winter. I'd tried reading it in high school, but due to the nature of high school being high school (and the fact that reading books during lectures is a surefire way to miss details and often entire paragraphs of information), I found it disjointed and even at times wondered if it were actually a fantasy novel, or whether I'd just been suckered into reading another historical book with fantastical imagery but no actual fantasy, like Gravity's Rainbow*. But with winter approaching and the upcoming movie on the horizon, I decided to finally settle down and give it a much fairer shake.
And it is brilliant.
Winter's Tale is first and foremost the tale of New York City during the winter in the early part of the twentieth century. But this is definitely not the New York City we know, or the one even people then would have known. Winter's Tale instead tells a different history, a more fantastical and more vivid than even some of the real-life tales the city holds. Central to this history is an angelic white horse named Athansor, and a man named Peter Lake. One morning, Athansor happens upon (or maybe is drawn to him) Peter Lake, who is on the run from his former gang, the Short Tails. And from this point, both man's and horse's life changes forever in ways they could not expect. Peter Lake (who is always addressed by his full name), a small time thief and mechanic who is also a wizard with a broadsword, unsuccessfully tries to rob the mansion of newspaper magnate Isaac Penn and instead finds himself enraptured with Penn's beautiful and consumptive daughter Beverly. The two fall headlong in love, and while she is seriously ill, the two are happy for a time. But the inevitable happens to Beverly, causing Peter Lake in his grief to first visit a small theatre where he sees a very odd play, and then finally to ride Athansor through one of the moving cloud walls around the city, seemingly to disappear.
And if it stopped with the story of Peter Lake, it would be well enough on its own. But it doesn't. It's also the story of Hardesty, a man who journeys in search of the "Perfect City" so he can understand the inscription on his family's gold salver. It's the story of the Gamely family, who live on the Lake of the Coheeries, a lake seemingly outside time and any particular space. It's about an architect who builds bridges and may have found a way to (as he puts it) "Stop time and bring back the dead". It's about others too numerous to mention. And most importantly, it's about New York City, a city that shines in bright colors even in the middle of winter and has its own magical secret history to those who know where to look.
I suppose the best thing about the book would be that it's vivid. Every scene, every character, every event is described in amazing amounts of detail, and the result is a world that one can't help but linger in. It's immersive, and the immersion helps the book. Furthermore, the vivid nature means that every scene-- from action to simple everyday life in the Lake of the Coheeries or among the Bayonne Baymen-- can play out in the imagination in almost cinematic quality. In particular, there's a section involving crossing the mountains towards Utah that I found played out in my head much like an adventure film. It's nice to see an author that not only understands "show, don't tell", but also demonstrates it quite well. Just by the descriptions, the setting of the book became a place I wanted to be, a place I wanted to walk around in, a place I wanted to experience. You know. Even though it would be colder than Hell and twice as welcoming to an outsider.
Speaking of, the world created in Winter's Tale betrays an excellent control and scope. In creating the New York of Winter's Tale, Helprin devises a mythology, an interlocking and interacting network of subcultures, details of places, and distinct characters and legends to populate his setting. He does this all with dialogue and stories, with sheer imagery, and almost never with exposition. Instead, he lets it flow naturally. We hear Mrs. Gamely's stories. We see things happen on the Lake of the Coheeries. The Baymen are one of the few who use the more expository forms of delivery, and even then, it's because their mythologies need to be explained to both the hero and the audience. Even then, the world is left to be peeled away in layers-- it's allowed to be explored rather than presented. This, too, helps the immersion of the book, and it made me feel more connected to the lore. Which, once the lore starts to come more and more to the foreground, allows one to keep the connection to the work, and feel like they got there organically.
And finally, the characters are to be praised. While there is a large, colorful cast through the various phases of the book (from the early 1900s all the way up to 2000), Helprin manages to give each a distinct voice and personality. Even the villains have some kind of personality, from the easily-distracted editor over at The New York Ghost to Pearly Soames, the leader of the Short Tails and something of an art critic due to a strange ability known as "color gravity" that allows bright colors to restore his health and vitality. The people feel as alive as the setting does, and with a setting this vibrant, that's important. Furthermore, their dialogue sounds natural and each has speech patterns that seem to fit with their characterizations.
The one flaw is that with such a vivid setting, occasionally time and place become somewhat displaced. Especially with a book such as this one, where time is an important component, that it does become disjointed in some places or does not allow for a certain amount of cohesion makes it a little difficult to follow. Another minor flaw, connected to this, is that it can occasionally get lost in its own language, making things hard to follow. While it is beautiful, wonderful, poetic language; getting lost in it just means it's harder to find your way out again.
But in the end, this is a book well worth your time, and even the small nitpicks actually aren't so bad. Buy this book. Read it. Keep it on your shelf and read it once a year. This book is right up there with Fool on the Hill in terms of literature I need to own and read. You won't regret it. I promise.
-Procession of the Dead by Darren Shan
- Sea Monkeys by Kris Saknussemm
- Rise of the Iron Moon by Stephen Hunt
- S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
*I was not much of a fan of Pynchon in those days due to my belief that Gravity's Rainbow was just another novel about soldiers during the Blitz. Delightfully, I was proven wrong.