Swan Lake

Mark Helprin, Author, Chris Van Allsburg, Illustrator
Mark Helprin, Author, Chris Van Allsburg, Illustrator Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $25 (80p) ISBN 978-0-395-49858-3
Reviewed on: 10/01/1989
Release date: 10/01/1989
In Swan Lake Helprin spins a story as elegant and beautiful as the swan that graces the book's cover; white as pages in a book, the bird glides halfway between earth and sky where illusion and reality intermingle. In language that is wise without being didactic and musical without being affected, Helprin tells of tragedy transcended by love and memory. Unlike the recent Fonteyn/Hyman version (HBJ) that faithfully recounted the famous ballet, Helprin's Swan Lake , while retaining some of the details of the familiar story, enlarges both its plot and vision. Helprin's characters are not governed by magical enchantments but by human nature and the qualities inherent in them as individuals. The Prince, having sworn to be faithful to Odette and the world of beauty and nature she represents, is beguiled by the glitter of civilization and by ``webs of obligation'' to betray her. Odette is not portrayed literally as a swan, but as she and the Prince leap to their deaths they fall ``in smooth dampened curves that promised flight.'' Helprin's complex tale within a tale, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, will be a welcome challenge for young readers. The story is focused in part upon the Prince and his Odette but also upon the characters who love and remember them: the Prince's curmudgeonly tutor and a girl who discovers that she is their daughter. The tutor's leisurely narrative is sprinkled with humor and philosophy and often interrupted by the girl, who learns what it means to be ``conquered by the world of the heart and all the possibilities therein.'' In his Van Allsburg's richly colored paintings, Van Allsburg has chosen to sometimes depict sometimes inconsequential moments from the story. The villain, Von Rothbart, e.g., is not pictured at all, while an entire page is devoted to the insignificant ``academy of truffle-hunting pigs.'' The 16 paintings, extraordinary in themselves, mark a departure for Van Allsburg, whose picture book illustrations in the past have been integral to the plot. Here, because the text is of greater length, he follows the tradition of earlier children's book masters; the light-filled paintings are set within like jewels that ornament and reflect the text without systematically explicating it. In Winter's Tale Helprin describes books that are ``hard to read'' but ``could devastate and remake one's soul''; his Swan Lake contains truths ``that take us beyond what we can reason and what we can prove.'' All ages. (Oct.).
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