Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: October 2nd 2012
Genres: Fiction, Literary
And if you were a spirit, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then there you would wait for someone to return, and the story to unfold.
Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was a magical enthralling ode to New York City and the first and only book I wanted to read after 9/11, despite having originally read it when I lived in NYC . It’s a timeless tale of love and one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, the kind you give yourself over to and let it sweep you away. Now, Helprin is back with In Sunlight and In Shadow and his love affair with New York City is still strong, albeit at the fixed point of 1946, when the war is newly ended and the city is filled with light and energy.
Harry Copeland has returned home from the fields of World War II to find his life much altered. His father has died and the family business is now his, along with all its problems—slumping sales, rising costs and extortion by ‘protection’ men. All these fall away when, while waiting for the Staten Island ferry, Harry sees a young woman and knows for certain, without a word, glance or touch, that this is the love of his life. She disappears but as all great love stories should go, he discovers her again on the return trip to the city. Her name is Catherine Thomas Hale and in the same way that Harry has seen more than most ought to she has led a life protected by immense wealth. At only twenty-three years she is preternaturally wise and determined to make her own way in the world as a singer. For her “Without thinking, there’s no clarity; and without feeling, there’s no purpose.” In falling in love with Harry she breaks off an engagement to a wealthy older man and sets in motion troubles that add to the burdens Harry already carries.
From this beginning, Helprin weaves a tale, not just of Harry and Catherine, but of each person their lives touch and their interactions with and love of New York City. Both the city and the people are illustrated in prose that is lyrical and intimate and no detail is too small to go unnoticed. In this way, In Sunlight and In Shadow encompasses both the minutiae and the grand schemes of life. For Harry,
…by recalling the past and freezing the present he could open the gates of time and through them see all allegedly sequential things as a single masterwork with neither boundaries nor divisions.
This is a theme Helprin has visited before—that if we were able to see all of our life laid out before us it would not be linear but would be a grand tapestry with each one’s thread woven into another’s, in ways that are beyond our comprehension. At the same time he acknowledges the brevity of life and that with this interconnectedness comes the fact that every action has a consequence. Harry has survived the war but is now faced with a new one and enemies that are not so easily known and defeated. Both he and Catherine have to come to terms with what they are willing to do to survive and thrive. For Catherine, the unseen nature of these enemies, working against her natural talent, is devastating.
The way the tendrils of all such possibilities intertwined left her with no means to judge either herself or others. Deprived of bearings, she suffered a kind of motion sickness, a continual nausea the effect of which was rapid corrosion.
In Sunlight and In Shadow is a sweeping story covering many themes and by and large it works because the story unfolds and progresses at a natural pace. There is only one point, at which Helprin seems to lose the thread and the narrative founders. At three-fourths of the way through, when the reader is fully immersed in the love and trials of Harry and Catherine, Helprin interrupts and takes several chapters to revisit Harry’s last year in the war. This foray is not critical to the plot and does nothing more than take the reader off track, meaning that unnecessary mental energy is expended to return to the main plot. In a book that runs over 700 pages, this is no small task.
Helprin is not an author for the short haul. His books are intricate and his prose larger-than-life, necessitating slow and careful reading. Not an onerous task for the reward, but in In Sunlight and In Shadow it is more work than expected.