Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

A Fine and Private PlaceA Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read for my 2013 TBR Reading Challenge, because I've been meaning to read it since I picked it up and got it signed by the author, several years ago. I find it astounding that this book was written when he was 19, though it does read like a debut.

A Fine and Private Place follows several characters' lives (and unlives) in a cemetery in New York City. Jonathan Rebeck is a hermit who lives in a mausoleum, and who comforts the dead as they forget who they are. Michael Morgan and Laura Durand are ghosts, people dead before their time. Campos is the night guard. His ethnicity is never directly given, but he sings in Spanish. Mrs. Gertrude Klapper is a widow who spots Mr. Rebeck, and learns that he lives in the cemetery.

The cemetery, being set apart from the world, proves a slow and easygoing setting. Most of the book involves musings on life and death and souls, musings that are far beyond anything I might've concluded about death at 19. They're far wiser than what I think of it now, even. The characters speak of death with a quiet acceptance and a willingness to move on I can't imagine a teenager able to grasp.

Having met Peter Beagle, it doesn't surprise me that he's always had such self-aware contemplation, but it still awed me.

The book still reads as a debut novel because the pacing is uneven. The main conflict stays on the back burner, as ghosts fall in love and Mr. Rebeck refuses to leave the cemetery and the raven (unnamed, and so not listed in the characters above) brings Mr. Rebeck his meals. There are several mentions of the trial of Michael Morgan's wife, but the repercussions don't arrive until the last 50 pages.

Along the way, the language is downright poetic, and so the meandering pace of the story didn't bother me. It's the jarring shift to tension that stood out, the sudden urgency to reunite the ghostly lovers.

After this book, Peter Beagle went on to write the classic The Last Unicorn, which is different in subject and pacing, but not in atmosphere. The language is all there, the potential to write everything he's written since.

As a debut novel, it's excellent, but overshadowed by his more popular work. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend it to those who wish to contemplate love and life and death.

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