Synopsis: Claudio Bianchi has lived alone for many years on a hillside in Southern Italy’s scenic Calabria. Set in his ways and suspicious of outsiders, Claudio has always resisted change, preferring farming and writing poetry. But one chilly morning, as though from a dream, an impossible visitor appears at the farm. When Claudio comes to her aid, an act of kindness throws his world into chaos. Suddenly he must stave off inquisitive onlookers, invasive media, and even more sinister influences.
Let me begin by expressing my love for Peter S. Beagle. As a child, The Last Unicorn was one of my favorite movies. As an adult, the novel became one of my favorite books. I even met Mr. Beagle at WonderCon in San Francisco a few years back. He proved to be sweet and soft spoken. We had a lovely chat and he signed a couple books for me. So, when I discovered he had a new novel coming out, I was excited. Yet, whenever a favorite author releases a new work, I get nervous.
Anxious thoughts race through my mind. What if I don’t like it? What if this book changes the way I think about one of my idols for the worse? What if hate it? Then what?
Well, I needn’t have worried. In Calabria is a sweet tale that examines the psyche of modern people and how they would react to fantastical things. Would they stare in wonder and revere it, or would they seek to control and harm it?
In the hills of Southern Italy, Claudio Bianchi, a curmudgeon, content to pass the time with his cows, an assortment of cats, his petulant goat, loyal dog, and his poetry. His interactions with those of the two-legged persuasion are isolated to the occasional trip to town and the daily mail call:
The universe and Claudio Bianchi had agreed long ago to leave one another alone, and he was grateful, knowing very well how rare such a bargain is, and hose rarely kept. And if he had any complaints, he made sure that neither the universe nor he himself ever knew of them.
Then the unicorn appears.
The arrival of La Signora, as Bianchi calls her, sets the reclusive farmer’s life into upheaval. He’s able to keep her a secret for a time, but word gets out and his tranquil life is replaced with nosy reporters, persistent unicorn hunters, and town gawkers. Even the mob wants to get their piece of La Signora.
As with any good novel, Beagle keeps you guessing. From the moment I started reading until the very last page, I didn’t know what to expect. A languid tale, In Calabria floats the reader down a river of philosophy, myth, bravery, love, and art. The unicorn’s appearance changes those who interact with her, awakening aspects of their character they didn’t know existed.
Whimsical from the get-go, Beagle weaves a magical story, his lyrical prose dancing across the page. At points, I could smell the crisp fall mornings. Feel the dew-damp grass. Run my fingers across the soft ground marred with cloven prints.
I loved this sleepy novel. I loved the characters, the mood, the premise. My only issue with the book had to do with me, not the writing. From the very outset, I found myself wishing I’d taken Italian in college instead of French.
If you read Peter S. Beagle's In Calabria, prepare to end up with a very different tale than you think you are starting out with. After the initial few pages, I was under the distinct impression that this would only be an allegorical tale in the vein of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist (much to my chagrin, as I mostly hated The Alchemist). However, this changed quickly. While there were still aspects of a parable throughout the novel, by the end the tone was much different. Beagle has created something that is yes, part parable. But it is also part folk tale, love story, a discourse about what life is truly about, and a discussion on what makes an individual a demonstrably good human being.
The reader first meets Claudio Bianchi on his rural farm in the beautifully described Italian countryside. Somewhat of a hermit, Claudio lives his life according to the animals he interacts with, and has very little patience for humans - to the extent that weekly visits from the postman are a chore to endure. His quiet world is turns upside down with the sudden appearance of a unicorn on his property. Now, he must deal with the needs of the supernatural creature, and the subsequent events sparked by her arrival.
I truly enjoyed the expressive writing in the novel, which walked that ever-so-subtle line between "trying too hard" and "not trying hard enough." Beagle is excellent at stating a lot, poetically, with very few words. He is also masterful at creating strong characters in mere sentences. Within a few paragraphs, the reader has a distinct impression of what kind of individual Claudio is and how he interacts with the both the physical world and the people around him. A similar effect happened with all of the side characters - no matter how inconsequential they were, no matter how short an interaction the reader encountered with them - the encounter left no doubt as to what kind of individual the reader was meeting. This level of writing - well, I can only put it down to the decades of writing experience Beagle has under his belt.
For me, there were two things that were the most intriguing aspects of the book. The first was the exploration of what makes a person worthy or good. We see the reaction of various characters as they encounter the unicorn, or rumors of the unicorn. Without drawing any conclusions for the reader, Beagle paints a picture of different layers of humanity, just from this one factor. The second aspect - hardly touched on at all, in fact - was the nature of time. I am a sucker for books that make me think of time and space in new and fun ways, and without giving away too many plot points, Beagle has raised just enough intriguing questions to pique my curiosity for this mini-world he created.
In Calabria was perfectly what it was - a somewhat allegorical novel with enough nitty gritty detail to keep it from devolving heavily into a completely philosophical tale. He managed to communicate a panoply of emotions without being overly dramatic, and managed to convey right and wrong without a bunch of pretentious moralizing. With In Calabria, Beagle has stripped away all excess, leaving the bare bones of a good story, and one that I would heartily recommend.
P.S. As a fun (and almost completely off-topic) aside, my significant other spotted this book when I set it down, and - due to the font in which the title and the author name are printed - thought the book was called "Peter's Beagle." He assumed I was reading some slightly risque novel, with "Beagle" being a euphemism for man bits. Nothing to do with the actual novel, of course, but too funny not to share!