In the perfection of her song, by the voice that sprang from her, speaking words as he had never heard them spoken, he now loved her as he had never known he could love. He might never see her again, and decades might pass, yet he would love her indelibly, catastrophically, and forever. If half a century later he were alive, he would remember this song as the moment in which all such things were settled and beyond which he could not go.
There’s a rumor about, colluded in by professors of literature, that literary works and plain storytelling exist in separate universes. A book can be one or the other, but not both. Mark Helprin , by means of his new novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, scoffs at this idea (probably with a Bronx cheer). Exquisitely and poetically written, this novel is also a compelling, nail-biting story of transcendent love, danger, and mortality.
The story begins in Manhattan in 1946 when we meet Harry Copeland, late of the 82nd Airborne, back from the war and trying to make peace with his memories and figure out who he wants to be. One day on the Staten Island Ferry he sees a beautiful girl and falls desperately in love with her. He meets her and learns her name is Catherine Hale. She is a singer, in rehearsal for a Broadway musical.
There are complications. She’s engaged to another man. He’s Jewish; she comes from a WASP family. He’s the owner of a failing leather goods company; she’s the heir to some of the oldest money in America.
They overcome these obstacles without compromising their integrity. But their very success brings forces into action opposing them. All their courage and faith will be required in the new, peacetime battle, and not a metaphorical one, that will sweep them up.
In Sunlight and in Shadow recalls Helprin’s masterwork, Winter’s Tale, in its comprehensive, loving description of post-war New York in fascinating, ever-changing, and polychromatic detail. It also recalls A Soldier of the Great War in its realistic, horrifying, but ultimately courageous view of war and its losses. But the city and the war are different here, in time and in other ways.
There’s a Miltonian quality to this book. Helprin seems to be trying, among other things, to justify the ways of God to man. He’s Jewish, and the theology he teaches (or rather suggests), is not entirely compatible with that of Christianity (though I think the Christian reader will be as pleased as I was by the examination of the real problems of interfaith marriage). But faith of some kind has to be maintained against all odds, as a solder holds out on a lonely hill against an enemy that seems overwhelming, or else all is lost.
“There is a point, a very important point. When you’re in what seems like an impossible situation and it looks sure that you’re going to be overrun, you have to keep in mind that only half of what the enemy does is actually going to put him in a position to overrun you. The other half is to communicate this so you’ll do his work for him.”
Like all Helprin’s books, In Sunlight and in Shadow is beautiful, enthralling, and heartbreaking. It has the further virtue of being long enough that you’ll be forced to spend some time in its world.
Cautions for a little rough language and some disturbing content. I give it my highest recommendation.
Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book, Hailstone Mountain.