In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin
Reviewed by Laurie Schut
I was as reluctant as most reviewers to say anything about Helprin's In Sunlight and in Shadow for fear of marring its beautiful surface. And it does have an extraordinary one - facetted, sparkling and full of light. Diamond like, in fact. It twists and turns through evolutions in time and space, New York, specifically, but also the Second World War, the Hamptons, the world of the rich, and the thwarted world of the poor. Criminals and politicians, actresses and soldiers inhabit this world with extraordinary grace and polish. As a reader, I want to inhabit this world, which is a sensation I rarely get from stories these days. The language is posh, leisurely and sure. At no time did I feel that awful lurch that perhaps the writer was not fully in control.
"To see and remember life overflowing and compounding upon itself in such vivid detail was always a burden, but, that May, he was able to carry it easily. Though a bleak, charcoal-colored winter had been followed by an indeterminate spring, by June the beaches would be gleaming and hot, the water cold and blue. The streets would flood with sunlight and the evenings would be cool."
And that's just the beginning. The story is at once a love story, a crime story and a war novel, and the protagonist, Harry Copeland, is caught between stories. His consciousness is shaped by the war he just left, a war that wounded him as much in his psyche as in his soul. This becomes evident he has to choose between running from the mob and facing them as a cold-blooded killer.
We learn a lot about New York, about life in the 1940's, and about crime back then - not just mob crime, but crimes against Jews specifically. Harry, a Jew, is bumping up against the New York upper class when he meets and falls in love with Catherine Thomas Hale. The Hale's wealth is so vast and pervasive that it feels like a disease. WASPism back then was about addresses, parties, and what you wore. Harry owns his own business making quality leather goods, but his wealth is like a flea on an iceberg compared to the Hales. Catherine is beautiful, courageous and flawed. Harry is determined. What could stand in their way? As it turns out, a great deal.
The middle of the last century was a time of many pitfalls. The two wars have left many men psychologically wounded, and many women are without fathers, brothers and sons. The mob is taking over crime in an organized fashion and the economy is revved to the full. Anti-Semitism is still very much in evidence and a Jew may find that he is welcome to serve in the army but is cast-off in civilian life. Hales of the world, however, always land on top.
In Sunlight and in Shadow is a dissection of classes in America as well as a look at life in New York. Helprin has a lot to say, and he says it well. If you enjoy history and people caught in its talons, then you will enjoy this book.