For the avid reader of fantasy Peter Beagle has a special place in the pantheon. His book, The Last Unicorn, is canon in the genre and one could even claim that it is held in high regard among those who are only casual fantasy fans as well. The story was made into a feature film, touring American movie theatres, as well as a recent comic book. Unfortunately Beagle is often remembered by this one book. He has continued to release books since then, mostly without making too many ripples. That does not mean that his later production is not worth reading, on the contrary, his most recent release, In Calabria, proves the opposite.
Claudio Bianchi is a cantankerous Italian who lives in Calabria. Alone on a small farm with his goat Cherubino, the cat Mezzanotte and pigs. He lives a quiet life and has minor interaction with the postman Romano. One night he spies a unicorn on his property and it changes his life completely. It returns several times and begins to nest, and that is when Bianchi realizes that it is pregnant and that he might have to aid it in giving birth. The arrival of the mystical creature softens the old man and he spends his days writing poetry and even starts up a relationship with Romano’s sister Giovanna. The existence of the unicorn and, later, the black colt that she gives birth too, becomes common knowledge in the area and once again Bianchi’s world changes again. Reporters and scientists flood his farm, and soon a local criminal organization comes calling, looking to annex the farm for their own purposes.
In Calabria is a short work of fiction, a contrast to the tomes of fantasy that readers become used to. That being said, Beagle is able to pack quite a bit of human emotion into the pages. The unicorn, not at all the main character in the story, becomes more a symbol of what could be. Initially its presence is a sort of blessing that enriches Bianchi’s life. When the creatures becomes known to the rest of the world he is challenged. Does he want to protect his new found world or does he take the easy way out so that he can go back to his earlier life of loneliness.
Beagle has an impressive ability to create intriguing characters and through them the world in which they dwell. He avoids long descriptions of nature and the calabrese surroundings, instead Bianchi and his friends are the canvas on which he paints. Through them we understand the beauty of their world and it is more than enough. The plot is simple and to the point. There are no answers to why the unicorn shows up, why no one is surprised at its existence and that is fine. It creates the magic of a fantasy story without being fantasy, and that has always been Beagle’s strength.
-C. Marry Hultman