narfna’s #CBR5 Review #36: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

386298 Ugh, you guys. I was so bitterly disappointed by this book.

Honestly, I’d never even heard of it until it was featured in an episode of Fringe a couple of years ago, and because Fringe is the shit, I decided to check it out. It sounded like something that had been written just for me, and indeed, when I started it I thought I was going to love it. And then the first chapter ended, and I started to get that sinking feeling. And then I got about 1/3 of the way and I wanted to rip my hair out. It was a chore to finish it after that, but I forced myself to do it because a) I hate not finishing books, and b) I kept hoping it would get better.

It’s really hard to explain this book to you, which is part of the reason I picked it up. Usually I love really imaginative fiction. The book begins with a horse running away, only he’s no ordinary horse. He’s clearly intelligent, and he loves to run away to Manhattan as apparently it’s his favorite place in the whole world. Clearly adorable, and I loved this part. And then the horse rescues a man named Peter Lake from a gang of mobsters and they become, uh, friends? Is that the right word? From there it got a bit convoluted and started to lose me. Helprin winds in and out of his own story, telling things in bits and pieces. Peter Lake is a burglar whose parents sent him to American shores as a baby in a tiny model boat because they couldn’t get past Ellis Island. He was raised by a group of pseudo-mystical people called the Baymen, exiled at puberty and slowly evolved into a burglar. He’s caught breaking into the home of a wealthy man with a very sick daughter, Beverly, and he and the daughter fall in love. If it sounds like this is a love story, don’t be fooled. From there, it only gets weird and apocalyptic. There’s people dying and coming back, immortal intelligent horses, long time jumps in the narrative, messiahs, the end of the world, a strange curtain of mystical fog constantly surrounding Manhattan, and bridges sometimes lead other places, but only sometimes. It all sounds cool in theory, but mostly it just confused the fuck out of me.

Other stuff that bothered me: Helprin writes with almost no dialogue, just lots and lots and lots of weird description, most of which would be beautiful on their own but when it’s all you’re getting sentence after sentence, page after page, it was just too much. There wasn’t enough character stuff, and too much emphasis on scenery. He spends five pages describing how the fucking wind feels on Beverly’s face, and about five seconds on her relationship with Peter. it’s just like BOOM they’re in love, for no discernible reason. I know that sometimes things just tend to happen in magical realism, but it really got on my nerves. All of his character’s actions started to feel like affectations after a while because I couldn’t really discern their motivation.

Probably the tipping point for my dislike was the narrator. I know I would have enjoyed this book A LOT more if I hadn’t listened to it on audiobook. The only thing narrator Oliver Wyman got right was Peter’s voice because he does a mean Irish accent. The rest of it he read in this airy annoying tone, emphasizing the wrong words, and doing mostly awful voices for other characters (the worst was Beverly, who I completely loathed because he made her sound so stupid and whiny with his line-readings).

I feel like this was never going to be a book I would love, but I also feel like I didn’t give the book a chance because of narrator. Will probably pick it up in hard copy in the future.

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