A lot of the stuff I read, obviously, is light adventure fiction — enjoyable stuff, but nothing that anyone’s going to nominate as great literature. But from the first few pages of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale , it was obvious that this book could be so nominated.
The book starts out as a piece of historical fiction, tracing the adventures of Peter Lake, a thief on the run from a gang of criminals in late-19th-century New York City. From there, it utterly fails to go where you’d expect; a fact which I found initially disappointing, but ultimately satisfying.
“Initially disappointing, but ultimately satisfying” is actually a good description of the book in general. Around page 200, I was convinced that the book had gone irredeemably off the rails. The light fantastic touches of the beginning had deepened into a nutty mysticism; the interesting characters of the first part were gone and a new cast of less-interesting characters were being introduced; and the plot had seemingly abandoned its main thrust and decided to start all over again with something else. I’d already started composing my “interesting beginning, but...” booklog entry.
And then, it started cohering. As it became clear that this wasn’t just a historical novel with fantastic touches, what had seemed like excessive mysticism now seemed like the key moral underpinning of the novel; the new characters turned out to be interesting after all, and the old characters not so thoroughly left behind; and the plot turned out to be a larger structure that subsumed the first part into itself. The end result is a brilliant and powerful book, and my praise won’t do it justice.
So instead, I’ll engage in a bit of quibbling. The book depends on a moral framework that it handles very well, but Helprin does slip too easily into extremism — everything is either utopian or horrible, from the parts of the city to the competing newspapers. This may well be intentional — Winter’s Tale has a moral compass no less certain than that of Lord of the Rings, and that latter book tends to the extremes, too — but it feels a bit odd. A related problem is that the New York City in the book always feels rather antique. In the parts of it that take place in the late 19th century, this is obviously appropriate; but even the parts that take place in the late twentieth century don’t feel like it. I remember 1999, and it never felt anything like this. The world Helprin draws is convincing and solid, but it’s nothing like ours, even when it’s supposed to be.
That’s a pretty weak set of quibbles, which should tell you something (specifically, that it’s a superb book, which I already mentioned outright). In fact, my most serious criticism hasn’t a thing to do with the book, but with marketing: Winter’s Tale is pure fantasy in tone, setting, and subject all — so what’s it doing in the general fiction shelves? Its absence from the genre section reinforces every lazy “if it’s good, it’s not genre” stereotype. So next time you go to the bookstore, go ahead and relocate a few copies — but make sure to pick one up for yourself, as this book deserves a reading.