In Calabria is my second book by the author Peter S Beagle, my first being Summerlong. This book has a different feel in that it’s got an earthy realism to it that was unexpected, especially when picking up a book that is clearly going to feature a unicorn. It’s quite beautifully written and the fantasy elements are very ‘quiet’ almost like an aside.
Anyway, at the start of the story we are introduced to Claudio Bianchi. Claudio is a forty something year old man living on a remote farm in Southern Italy. He values his privacy and rarely sees anyone else, other than his animals (which are almost as grumpy as he is) and the postman who regularly visits. Claudio is definitely becoming fixed in his ways and a little cantankerous. That is until a unicorn literally arrives on his property one day. I think if I was living such a solitary life and a unicorn turned up on my property I would probably think I’d gone insane and I think at first there is an element of that in Claudio’s reaction. That is until he realises that his visitor keeps returning on a regular basis and it seems has chosen Claudio’s farm to nest down and give birth.
Of course, once Claudio realises that La Signora (the name he adopts for the unicorn) is about to give birth he promises to protect her and keep her existence a secret. Unfortunately, secrets have a way of finding the light no matter how deeply you might try to bury them and this case is no exception. Pretty soon, Claudio finds his farm overrun by Paparazzi with long lens cameras all desperate for a sighting. Helicopters buzz overhead in a constant search and on top of that it seems that La Signora has come to the attention of a criminal element, the Ndrangheta, who make Claudio an offer for his farm – and offer that they expect him to accept.
And so, Claudio’s world has been turned upside down whether he wanted it to or not. He’s a stubborn man though and he’s determined to protect the unicorn until it’s given birth, even though his life and livelihood are under threat.
At the same time Claudio strikes up a tentative and unexpected relationship with a young woman called Giovanna. Giovanna is the sister to Claudio’s postman and has started to help him with his postal duties once a week. She becomes fascinated by Claudio and the two of them eventually strike up a relationship that has a certain innocence to it. It may be that this relationship won’t be for everyone what with Claudio being a much older man than Giovanna but I thought it was well portrayed and written in a very simple style. I think the only thing that did give me pause for thought was that in Summerlong, similarly, Beagle writes about an older man and his involvement with a much younger woman (although it is actually much more complicated than that). The main focus of both books, I felt, is about second chances and I think that both books have that particular theme in common.
Did the unicorn choose Claudio’s farm because of it’s remoteness or seclusion or was it drawn there to jolt him out of his life of loneliness. I don’t think, at the end of the day, that the unicorn really needed anything from Claudio, and I don’t think that Claudio felt he needed anything from the unicorn – but in spite of that the very presence of this glorious and mythical beast is the catalyst for change and without doubt the two of them eventually do help each other.
Would I recommend In Calabria? Yes. This is a short story, it’s beautifully written and Beagle’s prose easily conjures up the region. The harsh lifestyle and the beauty offset by the rugged. If you’re expecting an all out fantasy in which the main protagonist befriends the unicorn then you’re not going to find it here. Be in no doubt that this unicorn is not just a mythical creature but is also a wild animal – she’s not about to start talking to Claudio or inviting him to ride around on her back while she traverses rainbows in the sky. Not that sort of novel. This unicorn is really, put simply, a creature that provokes change. Her appearance changes Claudio irretrievably and brings something different out in him, something that makes him appear different to others and gives him a shot at shaking his life out of the stupor into which it’s fallen.
Beautifully simplistic, wonderful prose, subdued fantasy, a hint of romance tempered with an underlying streak of potential violence.
I enjoyed this in fact I was fascinated by it enough to read it in one sitting. It was very unusual and quite different than I expected.