Book Review: In Calabria by Peter Beagle

in-calabria-enlarged-for-webAllow me to indulge in a few relevant personal reminiscences, and then I will talk about the book and the story.  This novella has great personal appeal to me, and I want to lead up to it properly.

A young writer named Peter Beagle was one of my teachers at the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop back in 1973.  I don’t remember much of what happened at the workshop – it was over four decades ago and I had just turned twenty – but I remember Beagle’s author’s reading.  Each of the weekly guest instructors held a reading from their works at the end of their session, and during at least part of Peter Beagle’s evening he read a passage from The Last Unicorn, which had been published a few years previously.  It was a description of the unicorn running through a dark forest written in beautiful poetic prose.  I still have a vivid picture of that scene in my mind after all these years.  Afterwards, when Beagle was answering questions, someone asked about his writing technique.  He said that when he sat down to write he generally had no idea where the story was going.  It unfolded as he wrote, one sentence at a time.  That explanation was a source of wonderment to me, as I was having such a difficult time coming up with ideas for stories.  I don’t know if Beagle wrote In Calabria the same way – as I said, it has been a long time; perhaps his method has evolved.  I have tried the technique myself in a number of my novels and short stories, and there’s always the sense of adventure about it.

My next memory concerns mystical and mythical Calabria, one of the poorest and most undeveloped of Italy’s provinces.  It’s the area on the southernmost end of mainland Italy.  I have passed through it numerous times, having lived in Italy with my ex-wife and young sons for several years.  We stayed in Sicily for a year or so, a short ferry ride away from Calabria, where our third son was born in a small town just outside of Palermo.  Back then at least, people from the rest of Italy generally considered Calabria rough, rugged, uncultured, and backward, but in my travels I invariably found Calabrese folk to be kind, generous, and hospitable.

In Calabria is a short novel with few characters and a simple plot about a Calabrese farmer who one day discovers a pregnant unicorn in his orchard.  For some reason that the simple, gruff farmer cannot imagine, the unicorn chooses his land as the birthplace for her colt.  I don’t want to give away more of the plot because I want you to discover the joy and wonder of the story for yourself.  It’s a beautiful tale told in simple yet elegant language.  Although Beagle is almost eighty years old, he has lost none of his gift of writing spellbinding prose that so enthralled me as his young student back in 1973.  He must have spent extensive time in Italy and traveled through Calabria, because he perfectly captures the feel of the place, the character of the people, and the Italian expressions.  This book is a delight to read from start to finish, and I hope that many readers are carried away by its poetic enchantment.

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