Thursday, November 5, 2015

Review: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Cover of Winter's Tale, featuring a ghostly horse flying over the title while New York stretches out in all its wintery glory far below.
Long, long ago, someone told me I had to read WINTER’S TALE [Amazon | The Book Depository].

I know this not because I can remember it happening--as far as I can recall, I’d never even heard of the book until they adapted it into a movie--but because it’s impossible that no one, over the entire course of my life, ordered me to acquire this glorious, wallowsome, perfect-for-me book.

WINTER’S TALE and I are the same age. That’s a lot of years during which someone could’ve recced it, so it must have happened and it’s my fault for forgetting.

Then again, it’s possible everyone knew about this book and declined to bring it up because they hated it. It is very hateable, friends. Like, it’s one of those novels where you’re either gonna be over the fucking moon about it, or you’re gonna finish it solely so you can slag it off to everyone in sight. If there’s an in-between, it’s of the “abandoned it in disgust after a hundred pages of weird-ass nothing” variety.

Because WINTER’S TALE is really fucking weird. And while it was perfect for me, it might not be perfect for you.

I mean, I can’t even really tell you what it’s about, because the plot is just kind of something that happens. Its various bits and pieces might tie into the novel’s overarching themes, which I shall decline to enumerate for you since I expect they’re different for everyone. (I saw one review that talked about WINTER’S TALE as intimately connected to the promise of God’s glory, which ain’t how I read it at all.) Then again, they might be elaborate set pieces designed to delight those who delight in such things and frustrate those to whom such insertions are nothing but bunk. Individual readers must decide for themselves.

But basically, in the early 1910s there’s this thief/mechanic named Peter Lake (always referred to by his full name, because of reasons) who pals around with a magical horse and who’s got a gang of weirdos after him, and who breaks into a rich consumptive’s house and promptly falls in love with her (and she with him). And in the late 1990s (which was the future to Mark Helprin as he wrote the book), there’s a woman from an impossible town, and a man whose father left him the choice between a salver and a fortune, and the weird-ass newspaper where they both work (owned, not so coincidentally, by the consumptive’s family). And there’s also Peter Lake and some people in a very large, very strange ship that appears out of nowhere, because time travel.

That’s a small fraction of what the book has in it, but it’s not what the book’s about--or, more importantly, what the book does.

Time and again as I read, I wondered how WINTER’S TALE could even exist. What magic was at work that this glorious, strange, utterly compelling book made it from pen to page to editor’s desk to thirty-two-years in print to my thrift shop, where I bought it on a whim because it was $1 and I was in a book-buying mood and hey, several readers commented on the film trailer to say how much they loved the novel from which it sprung?

Because this fact is worth repeating: WINTER’S TALE is really. Fucking. Weird.

Like, it takes place in an alternate world some folks may be inclined to deem magical realist, but which I consider out-and-out fantastical because magic infuses absolutely everything in it. There’s no, “oh, let’s truck along in the everyday world for a while and maybe magic will intrude on us now and then.” Magic is everyfuckingwhere, and everyone accepts it because weird shit is part of life. This massive white horse can leap over buildings, and he’s sacred to these people who dwell behind a possibly time-distorting cloud wall in the swamp. It’s possible to capture light inside a solid gold room. You might have trouble leaving or returning to your hometown because it’s possibly in an alternate dimension or fairyland or something. Time’s a twisting and permeable barrier that exerts a startling influence on those who pass through it in unconventional ways.

And you might come back from the dead, as your recognizable self or as something new and strange.

The world of WINTER’S TALE is rarely predictable. It’s filled with wonders large and small, and with people keen to embrace and discuss those wonders. The Sun and its rival newspaper, The Ghost give them one platform from which to do so, while each character’s contemplative inner life allows them to sharpen the observations they’ll trot out whenever they engage in conversation with any one of their equally contemplative acquaintances.

Everyone from the omniscient, headhopping narrator to the newspapers’ many employees to the littlest kid on the page delights in wordplay. They’re keen to find the most apt way to describe the world around them; the most elegant and emotionally true words, if not the most factually accurate ones. And none of them sees the world in quite the same way, as is only right and proper in a book where reality itself lacks hard and fast rules.

WINTER'S TALE is supremely uninterested in handing out answers. It's seven hundred and fifty pages of questions, and it's up to reader and character alike to figure out exactly what's happened and what it all means.

You can maybe guess why it’s such a divisive book. Readers who love weirdness and language and beautiful observation, and who aren’t quite so keen on plot as the rest of the population, are liable to eat it up. Those who demand a good dose of plot driven by logical progression are never gonna be a good fit for this particular tome.

To come at it from a comparative angle, WINTER'S TALE reminded me of Mervyn Peake's TITUS GROAN with its insistence on establishing, and then reworking, its own iconography; with its commitment to sensation over sense; with its refusal to ever hunker down and be what anyone might expect. More than once, I burst into tears because a particular scene, or even a particular paragraph, was perfect both in itself and as part of this larger work.

Y’all think I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not. I cried. A lot. It was that wonderful; that beautiful.

And if it flaged a wee bit near the end, well, that was probably because I went through a busy patch that obliged me to hunker down and read far too few pages when I was bone tired and unable to concentrate on even the simplest concept, let alone something as complex as this. I look forward to rereading it at a speedier pace someday, sans interruptions.

What it all boils down to is, I loved the fucking hell out of it--and while I acknowledge there’s only a teensy possibility you’ll feel the same, I encourage you to try it too.

Also: someone goes mad and someone has consumption, as is the case in the vast majority of the books I love, so this rec is firmly on brand.


  1. I've never heard of Winter's Tale until, like, two weeks ago, when I was looking up the artist Erin Kelso and she had a beautiful painting/drawing of a girl on a white horse and I was wondering what that was all about. And now I'm hearing about it again! I didn't even know there was a movie! But this does sound awesome, I like the weirdness of trapping light in a gold room. You've got me curious!

    --Sharry from

    1. It's so gloriously, wonderfully weird! I'm not sure how they ever thought they could adapt it into a movie. From what everyone on Twitter told me, it wasn't a successful attempt at all.

  2. I mean, I love people going mad and having consumption, but since I do thrive upon plot, I fear this will not be for me. I loved reading your ravings though -- you're always SO UP ON whatever the thing is that you love. It's nice.

    1. Yes, I think there's only a teensy, tinsy chance you'd like this. You'd probably be in the "what the hell?" camp.

  3. I am so glad you loved this one, Memory. I wanted to, I really did. Unfortunately, I didn't. I think it was just too much for my orderly brain. If that makes sense. Even so, I still think of the book and actually think I like it more with distance . . .

    Have you had a chance to see the movie yet? I don't think a movie could ever properly capture this book.

    1. I've had books like that, where I didn't much enjoy reading them but I've enjoyed thinking about them afterwards.

      At this point, I doubt I'll see the movie. I have a soft policy of never watching film adaptations of books that mean a lot to me, and it sounds like this adaptation did an especially poor job. To be honest, I'm not even sure why they wanted to adapt it into a movie in the first place, given how much they'd have to shift to make it remotely doable on screen.

  4. Well it sounds like I am a potential lover of this one. Though it's been a while since I've been in the mood for something 750 pages long.

    1. I didn't think I was gonna have the stamina to read all 750 pages straight through, so I originally planned to make this my in-between book and read another 100 pages (or so) whenever I finished another, shorter book. That plan flew out the window when I fell desperately in love with it.