Mark Helprin: Winter’s Tale (review)

When I buy books nowadays, it’s always books where I either know the book or the author. If I’m at a bookstore and find a book I don’t know, I always check it out at goodreads before I buy it. But still, it’s very rarely that I walk into a bookstore and find a book where I’ve never heard of either author or book. In the town where I live, we have a small book cafe where they sell used books. I rarely visit there – in fact, I have only been there about five times. One of these times, I saw a book that looked interesting. I didn’t buy it but I went home and looked it up. What I found out, intrigued me so much that I went back, walked straight up to it, took it and paid the very small amount it costed. 50 Dkr – about 8,5 USD. I have never heard of the title or the author before but I’m so happy that I visited that book store and bought that book. Trying not to sound corny, but it was just the perfect book for me.

The book was Winter’s Tale. The author was Mark Helprin. And the book is beautiful, lyrical, poetic, almost like a fairy tale – just amazing. It’s one of those books where you don’t feel like any words you write will or can do it justice but where you just want to shout out to people ‘read this!’.

The story is set in a mythic and fictionalized New York City at both the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. It centers around Peter Lake and the Penn family, especially his love, Beverly Penn. Peter Lake is a burglar from when burglars were still honorable. While breaking into a house, he meets Beverly Penn, an heiress. They fall in love even though she’s dying from consumption. Their love is the thing giving meaning to all of Peter Lake’s life, a life so fantastic and amazing that … well, you just have to read this book yourself.

And we must not forget Athansor, the huge white horse. Every scene featuring Athansor is heartbreaking, beautiful, touching. Athansor is a sort of protector for Peter Lake, a horse with incredible powers. He can run and jump faster and longer than any other horse and, oh yeah, he can fly. There are some harsh scenes that will be nasty to read for any horse lover but the beauty of Athansor is well worth the heartbreaking scenes.

This is one of those books where after you’ve read it, you read other reviews because the plot is so complex and enchanting that you’re looking for a way to summarize it without giving too much away but also, without just writing some nonsense which tells nothing about the book at all but makes it sound boring and uninteresting. I’m really not sure how to sum up the novel because there’s so much content in it and the complexity of the storyline is incredible. So that’s why I went looking for someone who could sum up this novel – without finding it. It’s something that must be felt, I think.

The writing in this novel is part of it’s attractiveness. Overall, it’s just beautiful. I could post any number of quotes, attesting to the gorgeousness that is Helprin’s writing. But since I always write very long reviews, I thought I’d tackle two things at once and show how he writes and choose a quote that talks about something else I want to address. Since this novel involves people sort of traveling in time – at least existing across quite a lot of time, Helprin of course has to address the matter of time.

‘If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite  astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others.’ (p. 401-402)

So all time exists at the same time, if you can even say that. We are only to see one part of the time but people like Peter Lake, Beverly Penn and others are capable of more. They have a completely other vision of the universe than ordinary humans, they are larger than life characters and they live in a novel where time, life and death, love and divine beings are making humans capable of more than they thought. It’s about the limits of human experience and unlimited love. It’s an amazing metaphysical novel that has been put on my favorite shelf immediately after finishing.

There is so much more in this novel that I haven’t touched upon. Characters that will make you love them or break your heart. Peter Lake, Beverly Penn and Athansor will stay with any reader for a long time. Whenever you look up at a starry sky, you’ll try to see what  Beverly Penn saw – and ultimately, you’ll just return to the novel again to read about her visions, about Athansor, about Peter Lake, about love and the building of bridges.

  • Title: Winter’s Tale
  • Author: Mark Helprin
  • Publisher: Harcourt Books
  • Year: 1983
  • Pages: 748 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

4 thoughts on “Mark Helprin: Winter’s Tale (review)

  1. I don’t remember when I last walked into a book store and bought a book because I just liked its cover or its blurb.
    oh, yes I do, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, before it won the Booker 🙂

  2. Hi! I’m italian. I will read this book soon. Can you tell me how the book end? Beverly is dead or back to life? Sorry for my bad english 🙂


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