Book Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Earlier this year I read Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and I still find myself asking just what did it all mean? Looking at other reviews, it seems to be very divisive–either people love it or hate it. I’m in the love camp, but I can’t even explain why. But I’m going to try.

The story. Where to even begin? It starts off a little weird and by the end the weird is turned up to 11. But I struggle trying to sum up the story because after reading nearly 700 pages, I’m still trying to figure out what this novel was about. It starts off in New York in the early 1900s, goes back and bit to the late 1800s, and then finds its way to the late 1900s. But none of that is important because, as we are told, time is a meaningless construct. Time doesn’t actually exist. Everything that has happened or will happened is happening right now. Time is just one of the many things explored in this beast of a novel, along with politics, justice, capitalism, industrialization, faith, and love.

Characters. There are a lot. And you’re following one and then it goes into a story about another, and just when you’re getting used to them it goes into yet another and so on. Peter Lake  is sort of the main character if there is one, but, well, he isn’t even in a huge chunk of the book (like for 200 or so pages it is just other people). The only consistent character is NYC itself. But eventually, near the end, all of these characters meet up as things start coming together. But what of the characters themselves? A lot of them are kind of perfect in a way, while also having eccentricities. They are strange. They are quirky. They are not exactly relatable, and yet that didn’t bother me at all the way it normally would. Also, I think one of them might have been the devil, but I’m not entirely sure.

The prose. I’m not sure what it is about the prose that I love so much, except Helprin really turns a phrase. He’ll compare two things in describing something that doesn’t even always make sense, and yet I get it, I get what he meant. I don’t know if I’d call it artistic or crazy or both, but it was interesting to read such descriptions.

There is a lot of weird shit in this book. A mysterious cloud wall that sometimes surrounds NYC. If you get too close to the cloud wall then you will be sucked in and never return. There’s a horse that leaps several blocks at a time and eventually leaps so far it is basically flying and acts so much like a dues ex machina that I wonder if its not supposedto actually be god. There’s time travel–some of which is kind of explained, most of which is not, especially time travel from a guy that used to be dead. (How did he come back to life????)

In short, this book is fucking weird. Stuff happens in this book, don’t get me wrong, but you’re left wondering why and what it all means. I think that is one of the things that makes it so divisive. If you’re the type of reader that likes things spelled out for you, or some semblance of an actual plot, this book is probably not for you. If you like weird shit that’s never explained, if you like to have unanswered questions to keep pondering on for nights on end completely destroying your ability to sleep as you think over and over ‘what does it all mean????‘, then this is definitely the book you want to read.

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