“In Calabria” by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite books, so I could hardly contain my excitement when I saw that he’d written a new story about unicorns. In Calabria is a short story about Claudio Bianchi, an Italian farmer whose life has seemingly fallen into a rut. At least until a pregnant unicorn visits his villa. In Calabria isn’t a sequel to The Last Unicorn, but in some ways it serves as a spiritual successor. The book addresses some of the same themes as The Last Unicorn, including mortality, modernity, and mundanity. It also contains the beautiful language and sense of whimsy I’ve come to expect from Beagle’s best works.

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Last Unicorn is how elements of modernity intrude into what otherwise seems like a whimsical medieval fantasy. The Butterfly near the beginning of the novel famously refers to the “A train.” Such modern elements are deliberate anachronisms and serve to unsettle the secondary world. They also emphasize the contrast between mundane reality and the magic of the unicorn.

In Calabria presents the same juxtaposition, only in reverse. The novel is set in contemporary Italy, complete with references to the internet and paparazzi. It’s the unicorn that intrudes. As in The Last Unicorn, the unicorn infuses the world with a bit of magic. She changes the people and places she encounters, always for the better. At the same time, the unicorn seems like a reminder of possibilities of life. Claudio Bianchi’s life suddenly regains a sense of purpose once he encounters the unicorn. He gains inspiration for his poetry, a beautiful lover, and a sense of purpose.

 

As in The Last Unicorn, Beagle’s unicorn truly feels magical and magisterial. Beagle knows how to use the human language to evoke a sense of awe and wonder. We learn about the unicorn, but never feel like we truly get to know her. Her true intentions and reasons for choosing Claudio Bianchi’s farm remain a mystery throughout the book. This unicorn is not simply a horse with a horn; she’s a different creature, not entirely earthly. If nothing else, In Calabria is worth reading just for the chance to spend more time with Beagle’s unicorns.

Unfortunately, the romantic subplot of In Calabria doesn’t quite work for me. Claudio falls in love with Giovanna, the postman’s younger sister. She is half Claudio’s age, yet somehow falls hopelessly in love with him soon after learning about the unicorn. Part of the problem is that the novel is so short it never has time to explore their relationship. They literally fall in love overnight. Giovanna herself seems to have no other purpose in life aside from pleasing or protecting Claudio; we never get a sense of who she is or what she sees in him. At best, it’s as if the unicorn puts a love spell on her. At worst, she comes across like a parody of a middle-aged man’s sexual fantasy.

In Calabria provides an interesting twist on unicorn stories. I love the idea of a unicorn in a contemporary setting. I definitely recommend it for fans of unicorns and Beagle’s previous work. However, it’s a short novel – really a novella – meaning Beagle doesn’t have time to develop the characters or plot. The story is very straightforward, with few eccentricities or digressions, which is a shame because the eccentricities and digressions are almost always the best parts of Beagle’s works. As such, In Calabria contains few truly memorable moments. This means that, like Calabria itself, the book feels a bit mundane, save for the presence of the unicorn herself, which is truly magical.

Note: In Calabria was published on February 14, 2017. I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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About Dom

I study constitutional politics in Southeast Asia and I occasionally work as a consultant for rule of law projects. I enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories, both as an escape and as a way to better understand our world. One day, I hope to write a book about politics in genre literature.
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