The task Mark Helprin has set himself in IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is formidable, but no one could be better suited for it. Helprin here makes an honorable attempt to bring back New York City in 1947, awake and alive, brimming with vitality and confidence, while still mourning the multitudes of wartime dead. His hero is Harry Copeland, a paratrooper and pathfinder who fought his way through Europe to find the inheritance of his father’s leather manufacturing company waiting for him. His heroine is Catherine Hale, child of fortune, emerging star of the Broadway stage. They meet on the Staten Island Ferry as it steams into its slip, both wreathed in near-electrical currents of passion, desire and love.
That’s the story, anyway, and if it sounds a little thin, maybe it is. It’s hardly the point. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is not so much about Helprin’s narrative skills as it is about his command of the language and his intimate knowledge of postwar New York and its environs. When the intricacy of the detail combines with the complexity and the structure of the prose, the result is beauty matched with eloquence.
"IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is not so much about Helprin’s narrative skills as it is about his command of the language and his intimate knowledge of postwar New York and its environs. When the intricacy of the detail combines with the complexity and the structure of the prose, the result is beauty matched with eloquence."
The best of Helprin’s books combine his signature prose style with a compelling (if often meandering) narrative and complex, memorable, eccentric characters. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW has a simpler structure and less baroque plotting. The novel sets up barriers between Catherine and Henry’s romance, and then finds unlikely ways to knock most of them down. Catherine’s jealous ex-fiancée hovers around the story as a bogeyman, but his malevolence is less palpable than advertised. The gangster who threatens Harry and his business is a more formidable and intimidating foe, but he, too, remains in the shadows for most of the book.
The real problem is that the main characters are simply too good to be true, and maybe too good for this Earth. Catherine Hale (as the reader is told again and again) is possessed of surpassing beauty, an angelic voice and demeanor, intelligence and wisdom, and a surprising degree of humility considering her privileged upbringing. Helprin lavishes her with praise, making her very buttonholes a reflection of her beauty and grace. Her only flaw seems to be an insufficient grasp of how other people perceive the things that she takes for granted, such as yachts, private planes and long summers in the Maine wilderness. You can understand why Harry loves Catherine so much, but it’s harder to gauge why the reader is supposed to.
Harry, on the other hand, has flaws, but they are the kind that people claim to have in job interviews. He’s too committed to his business and cares too much about preserving it. He is a physical paragon and, as we learn, a war hero. (Helprin’s lengthy explication of Harry’s war record is by far the best and strongest part of the novel.) He loves truly, speaks truthfully, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty on the factory floor. He is honorable to a fault, and if that sounds like a cliché, it isn’t in this context. Your typical Helprin hero is not above a little rascality now and then, but Harry is too much of a straight arrow for that, and it shows.
As its title implies, IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW sets the splendid and the fine against the dark and the corrupt, and examines their interplay, how light and love can overcome the darkness, and how the shadow of evil and the rough ministrations of chance can extinguish that light, and love, and life itself. One can argue that the contrast is too stark, that Helprin’s prose is too overwhelming, and that the fate that honor and self-sacrifice dictates for his characters is too cruel. But the reader must take Helprin on his own terms, appreciating his worldview, understanding the terrible demands of that honor, and finally, accepting the reality that even the most talented novelist cannot bring back the dead, as much as we might wish that it could be so.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on November 2, 2012