A Fine and Private Place
“The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.” So says Andrew Marvell, and so concurs Peter Beagle in this stunningly written but ultimately bleak parable of love, loss, and hopelessness. Death in this book is gradual, inexorable forgetfulness; Michael and Laura are two ghosts who are not yet ready to forget. Jonathan Rebeck is their friend and confidante, a former pharmacist who fled the outside world one day nineteen years ago and has never left the cemetery since. Together, these three characters learn how to accept the encroachment of time — make the most of every moment.
This book is light on plot, heavy on atmosphere and mood. Peter Beagle’s glorious writing makes this reliance on tone successful; he shows himself a master wordsmith in this tale. He creates an almost unbearably melancholy atmosphere, yet manages to instill a sweet lightness into the book’s pages, keeping the reader from relentless depression. This is not an enjoyable read, exactly, but it is undeniably powerful and effective…and gorgeous. It is a very moving book.
Like Marvell’s famous poem, “To His Coy Mistress”, this book conveys an insistent carpe diem message. Relationships — in particular, love — are the most important thing in existence, and we human beings must learn to take advantage of every moment. However, the book makes no effort to idealize love, as much as many of its characters may try to do so. Love is fickle, unreliable, non-lasting — because human beings are thus, and love is only human. Yet even so, love is the best thing this world has to offer . . . in the end, perhaps the only thing really worth living for. Overall, therefore, the tone of the book is at best wistful, at worst depressing and even hopeless. Rather than a passage to eternal meaning, death is forgetfulness, a gradual drifting into inhuman apathy and eventual nothingness. Attempts to hold on to one’s humanity are at best only a temporary stalling of this inevitable process. So while the characters’ defiant attempts to hold to and realize their humanity are almost inspiring and particularly courageous in light of their eventual vanity, the hopeless context for their efforts creates a very dismal and tragic picture of human life . . . and death.
Content advisory: The book contains a fair amount of bad language.