With IN CALABRIA, Peter S. Beagle continues to turn unicorns into such a potent metaphor
A trio of fresh reviews of Peter S Beagle’s breathtaking IN CALABRIA.
For NPR, Tasha Robinson praises Beagle’s punchy and frank novella.
Unicorns are a long-term preoccupation of Beagle’s, possibly because the way he conceives them is so emblematic of the kind of fantasy he writes. In his work, unicorns aren’t just animals with magic tacked on. They’re avatars of ineffable, unearthly wonder. When people in Beagle stories interact with unicorns, they always come away stupefied and enthralled at having touched something much older, richer, and vaster than anything humanity has to offer. But they generally come away more human, as well.
The trend continues with IN CALABRIA, a short novel about a stubborn middle-aged Italian farmer who finds a pregnant unicorn investigating his land. In private, Claudio Bianchi is a poet and a secret romantic. Around other people, like pushy mailman Romano Muscari and his no-nonsense sister Giovanna, Bianchi is gruff and dismissive. He enjoys his privacy, his independence and his isolation. And when the unicorn arrives, he enjoys her too, in a secret, private, almost religious way.
THE LAST UNICORN is florid and flowery. Every other sentence contains an elaborate metaphor or a magnificently strange turn of phrase. But Beagle’s writing style has slowly trended away from Last Unicorn’s loopy whimsy over the past five decades. IN CALABRIA feels worlds away from his first unicorn story: It’s punchy and frank, with a simple, direct style that mirrors Bianchi’s straightforward inner life. The plot gently recalls James Thurber’s “The Unicorn In The Garden,” another minimalist story about a man who takes profound joy in a visitor on his property, then encounters resistance from the rest of the world. And the comparison feels clearer than it might be with a more elaborately realized book, because Beagle’s prose here is so lean, so focused on bare dialogue and action.
It’s been a hard decade or so for Beagle, who is currently suing his former manager for fraud and physical abuse, only a few years after finally resolving the longstanding legal battle over his contractual rights to the film version of THE LAST UNICORN. But he’s been undergoing a minor renaissance lately, with IN CALABRIA and his 2016 book SUMMERLONG marking his first novels since 1999’s TAMSIN. As absorbing and well-realized as his short fiction is, it’s still exciting to have him involved in longer work again, particularly when he’s returning to his favorite theme, and finding new ways to revitalize it.
Peter Beagle will always be associated with unicorns. It’s fortunate, then, that he’s turned them into such a potent metaphor, suitable for any era, and any kind of troubled hero in need of a little magic.
THE BIBLIOSANCTUM likes the gorgeous tale.
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading IN CALABRIA is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, IN CALABRIA will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic.
ALIAS FAITH RIVENS enjoys the brilliantly vivid story.
The greatest strength of his novel is in the lyrical prose that Beagle deftly wields to draw a reader into the Italian countryside. He crafts such brilliantly vivid images and uses language that provokes emotions and thoughts. It is equal to the one used in Summerlong, if not even more impressive.
This story also excels in its poignant themes. Through the obsession of society over rumours of the legendary, Beagle explores human fascination with the whimsical and their need to contain it, which is then contrasted by Bianchi’s desire to protect and preserve the magical.
It is a beautiful story that is presented within these pages, with characters that command your attention and sympathy and a climax that resonates with true magic.
A lyrically engaging and beautifully quiet novel that brings whimsy to life, Beagle is indeed a master of magical realism.
For more info about IN CALABRIA, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover design by Elizabeth Story
For more info on SUMMERLONG, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover art by Magdalena Korzeniewska
Design by Elizabeth Story