Novella Review: In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Length: 176 pages
Author Information: Website
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic.