I absolutely loved Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. I was first introduced to Beagle as a child, in the form of the animated movie of The Last Unicorn. Ever since then, I can’t resist a book by him. Especially if its sitting on the shelf in a dusty old used book store; which is how I ran into this one.
A Fine and Private Place is the story of an anthrophobic older gentleman who has been living and hiding in a graveyard for the last eighteen years. Jonathan Rebeck has not once crossed the boundaries of the graveyard in nearly two decades. In so completely removing himself from society, Jonathan has found himself able to see and converse with the recently dead characters he finds in his graveyard. A misanthropic raven has befriended him, and brings him food and other survival items he is able to steal out of the nearby city.
The story is also about two recently dead people, Laura and Michael. Both were unhappy and unlucky in love in their lives, and are completely unsure about what to do with themselves in death. Michael is convinced that his wife murdered him. Laura got hit by a city bus, but seems not entirely convinced that she didn’t step out in front of it intentionally. Laura craves the silence and forgetfulness of true death, but can’t seem to reach that inner peace. While Michael is determined not to let go of a single emotion or memory of life, even though Jonathan warns him that all the ghosts forget everything and fade away eventually.
Jonathan reaches out to the outside world for the first time when he encounters a widow visiting the gravesite of her husband. He befriends her, and suddenly finds himself wondering about the normal things again. He worries about his appearance, and wants to impress her, but he still can’t force himself to step beyond the boundaries of his graveyard.
Eventually, Laura and Michael decide that though they couldn’t find love in life, they have found it after death, in each other. They pledge to love each other, for as long as they can remember what love is. But then it is revealed that Michael’s wife has successfully defended herself in court. She is not a murderer, Michael committed suicide. Since Michael was catholic, his body is going to be disinterred, and moved to a non-catholic graveyard. Michael the ghost is tied to his body, and will not be able to stay with Laura in this graveyard. Laura appeals to Jonathan, as the only living person she knows. She wants Jonathan to secretly dig her up, and transport her to the same graveyard Michael now resides in. But Jonathan still can’t leave the graveyard, he can’t find it in himself to even look beyond the gates. Eventually, Jonathan overcomes his fear, and asks his widow friend for help. With the assistance of a strange night guard at the graveyard (who can also see ghosts; Beagle implies it is because he is mentally ill) Jonathan and the widow dig up Laura’s coffin and take it across the city, to bury it in an unmarked grave within the boundaries of the other graveyard.
The moment the truck passes through the gate of the graveyard, Jonathan can no longer see or hear Laura. He knows she is there, but he also knows that he will never be able to go back to his graveyard. It was not the boundaries of the graveyard that gave him this ability, but his removal from living society. He was only half-alive before, and so walked the line between the living and the dead. But now that he has once again begun to care about the future, and interact with the world outside, he has lost that connection to the dead. He will not be able to sense the reunion between the dead lovers, his friends. But he will return with the widow, and begin a new life with her, and be alive again.
I think what really made this book work for me was the quiet and subdued style that Beagle wrote in. It was not full of drama and emotion, even though the actual events were fairly traumatic. But the dead don’t have strong emotions, and a graveyard is a quiet and private place.
I was also struck by the similarities between this graveyard, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I know Gaiman has said he’s always been a fan of Peter S. Beagle, and I like to think he drew inspiration from this story. Both stories focus on the choices people can make after death, to forget and let go, or to desperately hold onto what made them who they thought they were. Both books show time continuing after death, but not change. The dead are not alive, even if they move and speak, they are frozen in who they were, they cannot change. Life comes through change. Both books also have the unusual perspective of viewing the living world from the outside, from the line between death and life, from inside the graveyard.
In the end, this was a lovely story about overcoming fear, and about living for as long as you can. Not being alive for as long as you can, but about reaching for experiences, and love, and life.