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Mark Helprin's new novel goes against literary tide

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In Sunlight and in Shadow

By Mark Helprin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 720 pages, $33

It's a challenge for a writer to return to the setting of his or her masterpiece. Shakespeare, after all, wisely refrained from setting any other plays in Denmark.

In his sixth novel, Mark Helprin returns to New York City, and not just any New York City, but a variation on the larger-than-life city of villains and visionaries that he rendered so beautifully in his 1983 novel Winter's Tale.

And while In Sunlight and in Shadow approaches the rapturous lyricism of that novel, it lacks the both the earlier work's humour and inclusive embrace of humanity.

In Sunlight and in Shadow is the story of a Jewish veteran of the 82nd Airborne, freshly back from the Second World War, who discovers simultaneously the love of his life and the depths of corruption in New York.

As he is falling for an actress and heiress named Catherine Hale (using a stage name to obscure her aristocratic origins), his family business is being brutally shaken down by the Mafia, which is given free rein by a corrupt police force.

Helprin takes his time following Harry and Catherine's romance and showing Harry's growing resolution to fight the mob -- using skills we see him honing in flashback chapters set in the war.

One of the reasons it takes 700 pages to tell the story is that Harry and Catherine are two of the wordiest fictional people you'll ever meet.

Here's Harry, for example, just after meeting Catherine and talking about the beauty of the New York skyline: "It is [beautiful], when seen as a whole from certain angles at certain times of day or night. When it snows, or when you consider the souls that inhabit it. Beautiful not on account of itself, of its design, but in the way nature showers it with unexpected gifts. And the bridges, with the double catenaries, running parallel, high above the rivers ..."

It's a passage that's pure Helprin, packed with a number of his favourite tropes -- bridges, souls, the interplay of nature and the built environment. (Bridge-building was an important theme in Winter's Tale, and in the speeches that Helprin, an old-style Edmund Burke conservative, wrote for Bob Dole's Republican presidential campaign in 1996. Other thematic holdovers from his earlier work include good-hearted craftsman-capitalists, evil manipulator-capitalists, sailing, and the dignity of labour.)

There are plenty of passages like the skyline speech. Sunlight is constantly burnishing buildings and the ocean is forever changing colour to fit the mood. Harry, Catherine and Catherine's parents never hesitate to talk about death, the immortality of the soul, or courage.

As a result, it's a novel that deliberately goes against the literary tide. Helprin makes no effort to reproduce naturalistic dialogue, nor to simulate messy consciousness, nor to show his protagonists as unknowable or unreliable.

Most literary novelists would consider "sentimental" just about the worst insult that could be launched at a book, but Helprin, who takes his title from the most sentimental song in the world ("I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow," from Danny Boy) is not afraid to dedicate 700 pages to the triumph of love over fear, pain and death.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg novelist and playwright.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J7

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