A few months ago, I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble when a book on a display caught my eye. It was a smallish book, octavo size (my favorite), a lovely deep green color (hunter green?) and it had what looked to be an image from a mediaeval tapestry of a unicorn in a pen.
Upon closer inspection I found it to be the latest book by Peter S Beagle, the fantasy author whose most famous book, “The Last Unicorn” was made into an animated feature which is a favorite of many young lovers of fantasy. Although I own a copy of the book, as well as some of his other works, I have never read any of it because I always considered it to be a children’s book. I have read other children’s books in my adult years, but I guess the cartoon actually turned me off rather than made me want to read it. Still, I was intrigued by this beautiful book. Wary of paying full price for anything unless I am 100% certain that I want it in my collection, I held off on purchasing it, but put in a hold request for it at my local library.
The other day I received a message that it had arrived, so I checked it out. Since I tend to vegetate in front of the TV when I return from work at night, I brought it with me to work thinking that I would read it throughout the week on my coffee breaks. Once I cracked open the book I could barely stand to put it down for the phone calls I must translate. It began a bit naively and a little too picturesque, a foreigner’s vision of life in a Southern Italian village, but it grew on me. The protagonist, Bianchi, is a short, middle-aged, grumpy farmer who lives alone with his animals, shunning society and writing poetry by night who reminded me a bit of myself. Although I am probably too lazy in my ways to run a farm, I would love to retire to the countryside to commune with nature and write.
His only point of regular contact with the rest of the village is his mailman, Romano, who suspects there is more to him than meets the eye. He is aware of Bianchi’s poetic endeavors and teases him about it, but the farmer is unyielding in his recalcitrance. Romano informs Bianchi that he is training his 23 year-old sister, Giovanna, to share his duties and that he should expect to see her soon. Bianchi is dismissive and goes back to his business.
Bianchi’s business is interrupted when he discovers a unicorn on his property. At first, he only sees it briefly before it vanishes, but eventually he is permitted to see it regularly and even approach it. He finds that it is a female and it is pregnant. He vows to protect it and keep it’s presence a secret. With the advent of this magical creature, he becomes inspired to write a lot more poetry and of a superior quality to his previous output. His life begins to revolve around his farm work and taking care of the unicorn.
One day Giovanna shows up at the farm. Wanting to see Bianchi who doesn’t greet her at the roadside to pick up his mail, she ventures onto the farm and finds him tending to the unicorn. She is overwhelmed. The unicorn however, has allowed herself to be seen, which says something. Giovanna swears to keep Bianchi’s secret and she gets him to agree to keep her in the loop and to talk to her every night on the phone to check in on the unicorn’s progress, since she only delivers the mail once a week.
Eventually, love blossoms between the unlikely pair and all seems wonderful until the secret of the unicorn gets out and the farm is swarmed by nosy villagers, media, animal rights groups, and eventually the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia). Bianchi must step up and protect his animals, his mythical guest and his new love, but is he up for the task?
This is a magical book. I had a hard time keep my composure while reading some of the more emotional portions of the story. The love affair is touching albeit unlikely. It hit a bit close to home since I have been in similar May-December romances which weren’t as successful as depicted here. I find the unicorn more believable than that part of the tale. The text is peppered with Italian word and phrases, but most times one can surmise their import through context. The tale is a bit gritty in spots and comes off more as a tale of magical realism that straight fantasy. Bianchi lives a hermit’s life in a remote location, but is still living in the 21st century. The only fantastic element is the unicorn. The language is at times frank and realistic, and some situations are not the sort one might expect to find in a tale about magical creatures. There is some violence which gets a bit graphic in spots, but it is not gratuitous and Beagle does not linger on it.
I read this book in one day and loved it. It is a lot different than what I expected and I am glad I listened to my intuition and looked into it. There is much here for lovers of fantasy, as well as a well-told tale. The prose is poetic without being too self-conscious and the story is heartwarming but not cloying. I highly recommend it.