Ellis Island and Other Stories by Mark Helprin - review by Anita Desai

Anita Desai

The Storyteller’s Art

Ellis Island and Other Stories

By

Hamish Haminon 196pp £6.50 order from our bookshop
 

These short stories by Mark Helprin, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker, bear a close resemblance to those pieces of delicately etched Steuben glass that appear in advertisements on the same pages. They might be etchings done in two different mediums with very little to distinguish one from the other. The stories are exquisitely shaped goblets of glass; the light shines through them – they have no substance, no opacity, no clot of dark blood that could block the light and cast a shadow. They are utterly fine and transparent, curiously archaic in their perfect balance, their deliberate, self-conscious and somewhat stilted art. Reality would shatter them just as a blow, a jarring movement or a moment of intense heat or cold would splinter that Steuben glass. To read them is to be aware of the frailty of art.

One story that seems most completely representative of Helprin's art is the brief 'Tamar' in which the author himself seems almost painfully aware of the limitations and exacting demands of his art. The story displays all his finest qualities in a bravura performance – it has elegance, fragility and subtlety.

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