A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle fantasy book reviewsA Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is a well-known author of many fantasy novels, including the classic The Last Unicorn. However, I don’t often hear mention of his debut novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), written when he was only 19 years old. Given his age it’s a phenomenal achievement — the prose is polished, filled with pathos and humor, and the characters’ relationships are deftly described. And yet I couldn’t get into the story at all, because there was almost no dramatic tension of any kind — just two central romantic relations, one between two people lonely and disconnected in the living world, and one between two recently deceased spirits not ready to let go of life.

The story bears remarkable similarities to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which was almost certainly influenced by it. A Fine and Private Place tells the tale of Jonathan Rebeck, a homeless man who has been living in a New York cemetery for the last 19 years in solitude. He is fed regularly by a wise-cracking talking raven (reminiscent of Matthew the Raven, the faithful servant of Morpheus in Gaiman’s SANDMAN series) who steals sandwiches from local eateries. The other special thing about Jonathan is that he can see and converse with the ghosts of the deceased. In fact, he generally meets and orients them when they first arrive at the cemetery. Beagle’s conceit is that the dead neither go to heaven or hell, but rather linger initially without corporeal form, slowly forgetting what it was like to be alive, and eventually fading away. It’s almost like a second “life,” but inferior in all aspects to real life.

When Jonathan meets the newly-arrived Michael Morgan, a university teacher who may or may not have been poisoned by his beautiful wife, they strike up a friendship and spend many hours (and pages) discussing life, death, regrets, and relationships while playing chess. Just when we think that Jonathan is just a foil for the dead, he encounters Mrs. Clapper, a recent widow who has buried her husband in an elaborate mausoleum in the cemetery. When she meets Jonathan by chance, he carefully conceals his identity, pretending he is visiting a deceased friend’s grave. Mrs. Clapper was very attached to her husband in life, and his loss has cast her adrift, so that she goes through the motions of life without much purpose. Jonathan is filled with both excitement at interacting with a living person, and fear that his secret will be exposed.

Perhaps I am a bit jaded as a reader, but within the first few chapters of A Fine and Private Place I could see where the story was leading, particularly in terms of the relationships of the two couples, living and dead, the predictable revelations about their lives, and why they ended up in their circumstances. I knew the story arcs’ final destinations, and was not surprised by anything in the story. This led to a complete lack of dramatic tension or excitement, since 90% of the story consisted of lengthy conversations among the four main characters, much like a Woody Allen movie. I like those ironic conversations among New Yorkers as much as anyone, but it does get old if little else happens.

Of greater interest were the overlaps with Gaiman’s later The Graveyard Book, which borrows the central idea that the dead linger on in limbo, tied to where they were buried, and a central character who lives in the graveyard, shunning the living world and feeling more comfortable with the dead. However, that book (which I loved) was about a boy growing up in those circumstances, and as he grew older he had the natural urge to step outside his confines and make contact with the outside world, which is a perfect analogy for all of us who grew up timid and took time to build up the courage to step outside our shells and face life with all its ups and downs.

However, I had trouble connecting with Jonathan in Beagle’s story, as he steadfastly resists any invitations to venture outside, having been so traumatized by his experiences as a failed pharmacist. Though events in the story finally force his hand, his adamant resistance to interact with other human beings got a bit tiresome. I could understand this story being written by an older, more world-weary writer, so it was a big surprise to know how young Beagle was when he wrote it. I think he managed to write convincingly about mature characters looking back at their failures in life, and the power of love to overcome barriers even including death, but it’s still an unusual choice for a young writer’s debut work.

In any case, A Fine and Private Place is a well-written story and the audiobook is narrated by the author himself, but nevertheless it failed to engage me. It has been reprinted regularly for over 50 years and was chosen by David Pringle for his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, so clearly it struck a chord for many readers, but I was hoping for a more eventful story.

Published in 1960. Conversing in a mausoleum with the dead, an eccentric recluse is tugged back into the world by a pair of ghostly lovers bearing an extraordinary gift — the final chance for his own happiness. When challenged by a faithless wife and aided by a talking raven, the lives of the living and the dead may be renewed by courage and passion, but only if not belatedly. Told with an elegiac wisdom, this delightful tale of magic and otherworldly love is a timeless work of fantasy imbued with hope and wonder. After multiple printings since 1960, this newest edition will contain the author’s recent revisions and will stand as the definitive version of an ageless classic.