This week I’m recommending the ultimate in Urban Fantasy – Mark Helprin’s `Winter’s Tale’, which was first published in 1983. Out this year are paperback and ebook editions under the title of `A New York Winter’s Tale’, to coincide with the release of a film adaptation by Akiva Goldsman. This is a sweet, romantic, and visually beautiful film, but with a two-hour running time it could never hope to do justice to Helprin’s very long and complex novel . If  you’ve just seen the film and, baffled by fleeting references to fallen angels, wondered if bits of the story are missing, the answer is a resounding yes. Whether or not you enjoyed `A New York Winter’s Tale’, it is well worth giving the original novel a try.

In the late 19th century, in a city very like New York, a baby boy is found floating in a miniature boat called City of Justice by the primitive Baymen who live in the marshes. They call him Peter Lake and care for him until he is twelve years old before sending him to Manhatten to find his own path. Peter ends up in an orphanage where a strange clergyman called Reverend Mootfowl encourages Peter’s love for all types of machinery. Peter and his friend Cecil are delighted to be chosen to work on a new machine for a bridge-building project until the dreadful day when they think they have accidentally killed Mootfowl. Peter and Cecil run away and are forced to join the Short Tails gang led by the terrifying Pearly Soames. Peter grows up to be an accomplished burglar and is content enough until one of Pearly’s criminal schemes involves wiping out the Baymen. Peter foils this plan but is soon on the run from Pearly and the brutal Short Tails. He only escapes because he finds a marvellous white horse who can sometimes fly.

Peter’s life changes again when he meets the beautiful Beverly Penn, a young woman who is dying of consumption. She is the daughter of wealthy newspaper owner and philanthropist, Isaac Penn. Peter follows her to the Penn’s country house on the Lake of the Coheeries, a place that doesn’t quite seem to be on any map. Beverly is somehow able to protect Peter from Pearly’s malicious power, but their happiness is not destined to last. Peter is a broken man but he cannot die until he has helped to bring about a miracle. As the year 2000 approaches, Peter’s destiny is linked to a new generation of the Penn family  and to Virginia, a young journalist and mother from the Lake of the Coheeries and her husband, Hardesty, who is driven to search for `a perfectly just city’. The trouble is, Peter Lake doesn’t remember who he is or know what he is meant to do.  Meanwhile the city of New York has become a battleground between the forces of order and chaos and a miraculous bridge of light is being built which could mean the end of everything….

Some reviewers of the film `A New York Winter’s Tale’ complained that the plot was too strange and complicated for them to follow. Goodness knows how they would have coped with the original novel and its huge cast of eccentric characters. I’m assuming that the discerning readers of my Blog enjoy strangeness and are well used to dealing with multi-layered, time-bending plots. However, if you normally like fast-paced fiction, you will have to slow down and learn to enjoy the side-shows as much as the main story. The 799 pages of `Winter’s Tale’ contain far more than I could pack into a conventional plot summary. Athansor, the creature of legend who can appear as a white horse, gallops into the story at key moments. Pearly and the grotesque Short Tails are a perpetual part of the criminal underworld, always waiting for the chance to rob, kill and burn. Yet Jackson Mead, the mysterious bridge-builder served by Cecil and Mootfowl, may be even more dangerous to the city. Peter and Beverly’s doomed but glorious romance is just the first of several memorable love stories in the book, including one in which two people fall in love talking through a wall before they’ve seen each other. Peter’s actions are vital to the over-arching storyline but he is absent for much of the book, while the focus shifts to characters such as quirky writer, Virginia and her `dumplingesque’ mother, Mrs Gamely, and Hardesty Marratta a young man who has to choose between inheriting a vast fortune or a single gold salver inscribed with the intriguing words: For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Helprin has re-imagined his fictional city with extraordinary intensity. His singing prose makes the suspension bridges and skyscrapers of New York as beautiful and magical as the castles and forests of conventional Fantasy and the derelict docks, claustrophobic silt- chambers and garbage-strewn alleys as sinister as anything in Mordor.  If I hadn’t been there, I  would think that Helprin had made up the zodiac-painted dome of  Grand Central Station. It certainly makes the perfect hiding place for the elusive Peter Lake. Much of the novel is about the continuous struggle for the soul of this version of New York, a struggle that is sometimes represented by the contrast between the city’s two leading newspapers – `The Sun’ run by the Penn family (British readers will have to forget about our own `Sun’ newpaper which is very far from being `a beacon of light’) and `The Ghost’ owned by dim rival press-baron Craig Binkey. Near the end of the book an election is fought between the corrupt `Ermine Mayor’ and `retrogressive’ idealist, Praeger de Pinto, one of whose policies is to condemn `electronic slavery’ and `reassert the primacy and sacredness of the printed page’. Some of the arguments in this section of the novel concern the best way to live the `American dream’ but the book has other themes which are more universal. It even tackles the big question of whether human suffering has a purpose.

Jackson Mead wants to put a stop to the chaos of human life and impose divine justice and endless peace on the city but even his helpers can see that it is the on-going war between good and evil which stimulates `the wonderful small triumphs of the soul’. Pearly Soames, a villain with a curious passion for pure colour, argues that love is finite and that what you give away, you lose. Peter Lake comes to believe that love lasts for ever as it is passed from soul to soul and that nothing is ever lost in the giving. In `Winter’s Tale’, miracles aren’t seen as divine interventions in human affairs, but as acts of cosmic justice eventually brought about through the sacrifices of individuals. Some readers may feel that there are a few too many earnest discussions in this deeply serious novel, but you will find plenty of thrilling action scenes as well. At the climax of the story, New York suffers an exceptionally cold winter and then faces destruction in storms of fire. Sadly, the film-makers don’t seem to have had the budget for these apocalyptic scenes, but nobody describes dramatic weather better than Helprin. His clouds alone are worth the price of the novel.

`Winter’s Tale’ isn’t for everyone. Some people find it incomprehensible or overblown and pretentious, but for other readers this is the book they keep coming back to, the book that gives them hope in dark times or makes sense of their lives. It might be worth finding out whether `Winter’s Tale’ could be your `desert island book’. Until two weeks time.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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