Peter S. Beagle is best known for writing The Last Unicorn, which I haven’t read but heard of time and again as childhood-defining. For what it’s worth, I tried watching the animated feature but was vetoed by the other denizens of my household. I shall try another time, and crack open the copy of The Last Unicorn currently sitting on my shelf in due time.
Knowing only about Unicorn was insufficient preparation for reading Beagle’s recent novel, Summerlong, published by Tachyon Publications in September of last year. I made assumptions about what Summerlong would be based on nothing, and that is a huge disservice to what is an extraordinary novel.
Summerlong is on the outer fringes of fantasy, more a story of modern slipstream fiction like something by Haruki Murakami. It’s the kind of book where the boundaries of reality slowly erode and the characters’ realities unravel in consonance with the surreal.
In the case of Summerlong, a complicated-but-functional family on an island in the Puget Sound. A middle-aged couple, Abe and Joanna, have a straightforward life which is rocked by the arrival of Lioness Lazos, a mysterious young woman who enchants the couple completely.
With Lioness’s arrival, the unraveling begins on both macro and micro scales, from strange weather to bizarre animal appearances and children who can pull full-grown flowers from deep in the earth.
The story itself is excellent, full of emotion and tension, action and introspection, character and mystery. But the writing itself is so damn good that even if the plot was weak this would be a fantastic read. Beagle’s language is sophisticated but relatable, his characters bleeding through every word, every carefully placed comma, and the spaces between. Their pain and hope and love and confusion suffuse the text so completely that I achieved that sought-after state of readvana, wherein you look up from a book and you aren’t sure what life is, who you are, or what anything is.
I was enchanted by this book. I was transported, surprised, and amazed by it. If I had read a synopsis of it, I may have passed on it altogether, which would have been a terrible loss. It’s books like Summerlong that are defining points in a budding writer’s journey, where you read something and say “I want to be able to do that.”