Peter S. Beagle, |
A Dance for Emilia
American fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle has only published six books in the last 30-odd years, yet each was a gem, and two -- The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place -- are considered bonafide classics of fantastic fiction. His most recent (after 1999's Tamsin) returns to the "gentle" ghost story form of A Fine and Private Place and is a sweet and poignant examination of dreams and the afterlife set in contemporary Manhattan.
The story is narrated by Jake Holtz, a "working stiff" actor (nobody famous) who is confronted with the profound when the spirit of his recently deceased best friend -- failed dancer turned art critic Sam Kagan -- possesses the body of his female Abyssinian cat Millamont. When the cat suddenly starts performing leaps, twirls and acrobatic antics once impossible for Sam's less supple human body and starts "speaking" in a sort of telepathic voice, Jake and Emilia Rossi (a New Jersey newspaper reporter and Sam's most recent lover) are convinced that the power of their combined grief and love has proved strong enough to bring Sam back to them in Millamont's body. Yet, despite the human presence in the cat body, Sam/Millamont retains very amusing feline behaviors!
Jake's narrative voice smoothly transitions from past to present as flashbacks recall Jake's friendship with Sam, the two of them sharing a passion for the performing arts and an understanding of the struggle to make dreams come true. With concision and lyrical grace, Jake's prose conveys a welter of convincing detail about the minutiae of adult life and feelings as the two friends pursued demanding careers on opposite coasts -- Sam writing for arts magazines and Jake taking acting jobs wherever he can, mostly in California, sometimes in New York and elsewhere -- yet their relationship stayed closer than ever. When Sam's unexpected death leaves Jake and Emilia devastated, their shared mourning and love for Sam forges the bond of a new friendship, and since Emilia inherited Millamont, Sam's cat -- the miracle of Sam returning to "haunt" the feline's body somehow seems inevitable. But some miracles do not last forever, or do they?
A Dance for Emilia, really a novella in a small format hardcover, manages to pack into 87 pages a full-length novel's worth of character-driven, vividly detailed story rich in heartfelt musings on love, longing and the power of bonds between people, all painlessly conveyed through Jake's sobering reflections and witty dialogue. The book's combination of intense emotions, colorful descriptions of people and places, permeated throughout with an oddly poignant yet beautiful mood, makes the inclusion of the eerie and the uncanny convincing, especially at the tale's bittersweet yet satisfying conclusion. This charmingly unconventional example of the ghost story subgenre of fantasy is perfect as a gift to oneself and especially to a special friend, for Beagle offers not only an entertaining, brief, supernaturally-tinged yarn, but as Beagle says, also something more: "Not facts, but the accuracy under and around and beyond facts. Not a recital of events -- not even honesty -- but truth." A Dance For Emilia is a book for everyone!
[ by Amy Harlib ]