Tachyon Publications, LLC., 2017.
Let it be said up front that Calabria is a region of southern Italy, in the “toe of the boot.” There on a hillside farm lives Claudio Bianchi, alone except for his old dog Garibaldi, his old goat Cherubino, and three cats: Sophia, Mezzanotte, and Third Cat, which is more position than name, since Bianchi had never learned her real name, “as one must do with cats.” Other than twice-weekly visits from young Romano the postman, It’s a hard and lonely existence, which suits Bianchi just fine. The farm gives him enough of a living to live, plus time to read and sometimes write poetry, which he mostly keeps to himself. All that changes when the unicorn visits his scraggly vineyard for reasons that Bianchi cannot fathom:
“He would indeed have taken it for an illusion, if Cherubino, anarchist and atheist like all goats, had not remained kneeling for some time afterward, before getting to his feet, shaking himself and glancing briefly at Bianchi before wandering off. Bianchi knew the truth then, and sat down.”
He writes a poem about the unicorn, but the visitation proves to be more than a one-time miracle. The unicorn returns, and is apparently searching for something. The truth finally dawns on Bianchi: the unicorn is pregnant, and what she’s searching for is a place to have her foal…fawn? Bianchi isn’t sure. But when she makes her nest in a hollow near his apple orchard, the farmer begins keeping vigil, and it is there that Giovanna, the postman’s sister covering his route that day, finds Bianchi, and finds the unicorn. Soon she’s in on the conspiracy of silence, and essentially in the unicorn’s service as much as Bianchi, though he might not have put it that way, already is. The unicorn eventually has a difficult birth, and Bianchi is there to assist, and all is well, for a while.
Some secrets are impossible to keep, and the unicorn and her newborn are among them. It’s not long before reporters, animal rights activists, and unicorn hunters are snooping around and sneaking through and trampling Bianchi’s farm, but the real danger arrives with the monster, a monster in human form, as the worst ones tend to be.
So that’s the plot. Trivial things, plots, or would be if one didn’t need a way to lay out what does and must happen in the course of the story. The bones, if not the flesh. Seldom if ever what the story is about. At its heart, In Calabria is a love story, and I don’t simply mean the contentious but real affection Bianchi and Giovanna come to feel for each other. There’s also healing. In time we learn why Bianchi is alone in the first place, and the tragedy that put him there. In Calabria is also a story of awe and wonder, and all that contained in a novella-sized package. It contains multitudes. Yes, I know. The monster must be defeated, the dangers averted, or else the story is about something else entirely. So let’s leave that part for the reader, where it rightly belongs.
If you already know Peter Beagle’s work, and you haven’t read this book, I don’t know what to tell you, other than stop wasting time and get to it. I’m already mad at myself for waiting so long to do the same. If you don’t know Beagle’s work, then correct this error as soon as possible. Start with The Last Unicorn, or A Fine and Private Place, or The Folk of the Air, or The Innkeeper’s Song or...well, I really doubt it matters. No writer is for every reader, but if Peter Beagle isn’t for you, then I can only offer my sincere condolences. But it’s well worth your time to find out.