Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and in ShadowIn Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent five weeks with In Sunlight and In Shadow. Five monogamous weeks, which is a committed literary relationship for this fast-in, fast-out reader. Yes, life circumstances wore me out and distracted me, so that some days the amount of pages read would be imperceptible as measured on a standard ruler, but never once did I contemplate setting Helprin aside for a less complicated time or supplementing my evening reading with a less demanding literary companion.

This lush, resplendent novel enthralled me. Each and every one of its 705 pages.

The story itself is quite simple. In fact, the old-fashioned romance and adventure style makes this a curl-up-on-the-sofa read. But the beauty of Helprin’s prose, its rococo grandeur and meandering lyricism, make it worthy of lingering. Take your time to reread certain passages and be astonished anew by Helprin’s particular magic.

Harry Copeland is in his early 30s and recently returned to Manhattan from the European Theatre of WWII. Harry is alone in the world, an only child, his parents deceased, and he is taking his time to heal from the emotional wounds and physical trauma sustained as a special ops paratrooper. What can’t wait, however, is the luxury leather goods business he inherited from his father.

The business is being newly bilked by the Mafia. Not the perfunctorily threatening Jewish Mafia to which Copeland Leather and every other manufacturing business in the building has been accustomed to paying off. This is the deeply serious and deadly Mob. Which has singled out Copeland Leather for extortion.

One day, while traveling on the Staten Island ferry, Harry spies a beautiful woman in white and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. She is Catherine Thomas Hale, of the Manhattan and Hamptons Hales, an heiress and Broadway ingénue. Catherine is strong, moral and wise. She meets Harry’s love and passion measure for measure. They are not really star-crossed lovers: Harry is a Harvard man, after all. But he is a Jew and he is broke – facts he and Catherine cannot long hide from her family.

But this is more than a love story. It is a tale of a city at a golden time, when the memories of two wars and the Depression remain vivid enough to fuse gratitude and caution, yet cannot stop the momentum of power and wealth that rocket New York inexorably forward as the steward of all things modern.

It is a thriller, where thugs with Thompsons are pitted against combat heroes with iron nerves; it is a war set piece, where a band of brothers plummet into the mists and mud of western France; it is a window into a world of grand society, where money can buy everything but peace of mind and integrity.

It is true, Helprin uses six words when two would suffice, but never once does the sprawl, the grandiloquence, feel like an attempt to dazzle or distract. The gorgeous language wraps, not traps, the reader; the descriptions of characters and settings put the reader fully inside a moment, most of which you want never to end.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is romanticism at its soft-focus, golden-hued, unapologetic best. Characters are a little more beautiful, dangerous, erudite and talented than real life could afford; food is more delicious, sunsets more vivid, memories more precise and comforting, It is a novel for pleasure-seekers, for readers ready to sink into a web spun by a story-teller. Logic and relativism need not apply; only good guys, bad guys, truth and beauty allowed.

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The Prisoner’s Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that’s been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.

The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I’ve known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman’s brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents’ wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We’ve visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing – we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner’s Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to “employ” the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner’s youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor’s edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.