By: Peter S. Beagle
Release Date: February 14, 2017
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Books steeped in myth and folktale are ones that I am always drawn to, so it is with no surprise that I found myself with a copy of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle.
Claudio Bianchi needs no one, opting to remain on his farm with his animals and his poetry to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. But one day a unicorn that, if he isn’t mistaken, is about to give birth wanders onto his farm and calls it home. Suddenly entrusted with this magical appearance, he finds himself beset upon by those who want the unicorn for their own ends, some of whom refuse to take no as an answer.
In Calabria does nothing unexpected. The story doesn’t go to places unforeseen, nor are there any shocking twists or turns along the way. But twists and turns aren’t something this tale needs. It is a slow, beautiful tale about the characters, their lives, and how they change. It is just as much a tale of love and learning to forgive as it is a story about magic and unicorns.
The pacing is slow, but deliberately so. We see Claudio’s quiet, repetitive life up close – his caring for his animals, his tending to the farm, and the poetry he doesn’t want anyone to know he writes. Slowly, this changes. First comes the appearance of the unicorn. Slowly but surely this beautiful creature changes everything. The farm and its inhabitants change first. Then, slowly, the town changes too.
I found myself particularly drawn to the setting. The beautiful Italian countryside always makes for a beautiful backdrop, but here it took particularly well to the story being told. Claudio’s farm sits on the side of a mountain – too high to for the visitors at the coast and too low to attract the skiers who flock to the region. The farm and nearby town are thus stuck in a sort of limbo. There are cell phones and cameras, but the mail is only delivered every few days and Claudio’s farm remains near void of modern technologies.
There are sections that I do wish were brought out a little more fully. The extreme dissonance between some of the visitors to the main character’s farm was very interesting. I would have loved just a little more insight on the relations between some of these factions. For example those who had come to worship the unicorn as opposed to those who came to just to see a curiosity or those who simply wanted another hunting trophy for their collection.
I must admit that this book did touch upon a pet peeve, and one that is hard to shake. Nothing drags me out of a story more than when characters who are supposed to be living in a foreign country and presumably speaking that language, for that is the only logical conclusion, suddenly break into phrases or whole sentences in that other language. Every time the main character or those around him suddenly came out with a phrase in Italian it dragged me out of the story. Doubly so when that phrase was then repeated in English. For me, this simply breaks the spell an otherwise good tale weaves.
Still, there was much to enjoy in this book. And enjoy it I did. The book remains in that liminal space between contemporary fantasy and magical realism, a place I find fascinating but often unexplored. The fantastic and the very mundane meet beautifully here. On the one hand we have a unicorn appearing and giving birth. On the other hand we have a love story, a story of learning to forgive oneself. And, overall, I quite enjoyed this book.
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle is a wonderful story that charms and enchants. I have not read nearly enough of Beagle’s books. Certainly nothing since I read The Last Unicorn as a child. This is something I must remedy, and I am very happy I started with this beautiful little novella.