A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
The two main characters in Winter’s Tale 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. During another of his escapades Peter also encounters a mysterious white horse that becomes his guardian. The main magical theme of the novel is Peter’s strange knack of being able to sense and see things that other cannot. There is also an element of time travel and the ageless theme of mortals disappearing into the fairy otherworld, re-worked in a thoroughly modern manner. However, eclipsing almost everything else in the novel is the bond between the three central characters – Peter, Beverly and the white horse, Athansor. It is a bond that spans both time and worlds and it is only one of the many beautiful aspects of the novel. Some now find Helprin’s prose a bit dense and dated – the book was written in 1983 – but for me the book has never aged and remains a perfect, timeless fairytale of New York.
Winter’s Tale probably most accurately falls into the sub-genre of magical realism rather than out-and-out fantasy. The turn of the century New York in which most of the action takes place is described evocatively and almost everything is shot through with magic and fantasy – so that even the most realistic scenes are tinted by the background presence of magic. In many ways Helprin’s novel feels like it was actually written long before the eighties, and has the old world charm of a book from the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that the writer takes his time unfolding the story, which moves considerably more slowly than books that many modern readers will be more familiar with. This has led more than one potential reader to abandon the novel at an early stage but I really do feel that this is a book worth persevering with for the pleasure and meanings than can be imparted not just on a first reading, but on multiple readings thereafter. Helprin puts something gorgeous, 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 a rare form of escapism – one that you’ll almost certainly find just once a year, so what better time to read Winter’s Tale than now?
Happy Christmas from Fabulous Realms!