Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Winter's Tale by Mark Halprin

New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake— orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side.

Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl, who is dying.

Peter Lake, a simple, uneducated man, because of a love that, at first he does not fully understand, is driven to stop time and bring back the dead. His great struggle, in a city ever alight with its own energy and besieged by unprecedented winters, is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary stories of American literature. description

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 in Goodreads and 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.

1 comment:

Darrke said...

You are really doing great on your reading goals. I'm still struggling with the first book (but read a couple others in the meantime, so maybe it's just the wrong book for me?) Meanwhile, I'm thinking my own goal might be one a month instead of one a week.

Nice review. Thanks for keeping up the pace and introducing me to new and interesting books.

Have you come up with a good definition for "magical realism" yet? I'm starting to think the symbolism is a major factor.