The Unicorn Sonata: Afterthoughts

I probably shouldn’t be writing this review at midnight when I have to be up for work at seven in the morning, on yet another seven day work week and with a mysterious cold/flu miasma drifting through the house, but what the hell, YOLO, amirite?

Peter Beagle’s The Unicorn Sonata was a light, quick read – much appreciated after pounding through Leviathan last week. It’s a charming story, thought provoking and with a great deal of imagination and lasting imagery – it’s just out of my age range, sadly. However, despite being fifteen years too old for this book, I still found it enjoyable and I can’t help but feeling that’s part of its message. In any case, it made me think some things and feel some feels, which is what hooks me to a book in the end.

the unicorn sonataI’m much too old to like this book… but I do anyway.

…also, spoilers.

The book tells the story of Joey (Josephine) a typical young teen, with all the feelings of displacement and dissatisfaction that come with being her age. She has an affinity for music, and spends her free time in the music shop of a Greek man by the name of John Papas. On one such day, a strange boy enters the store and offers to sell John Papas a horn that plays the most beautiful, mysterious music – for all the gold Papas can give him.

In the end, the boy refuses the deal and disappears again. Joey, however, is haunted by the music, and one night it leads her from her bed, down into the street and straight into a magical ‘other world’ called Shei’rah. There she meets and befriends all manner of magical creatures including mermaids, satyrs and unicorns – the latter of which have become mysteriously blind. To unravel the mystery, Joey must come to understand the meaning of home and family and sacrifice.

If the book has one failing, it’s the ending. The blindness of the unicorns is treated as if from an outside agent, seperate from the realm and scope of the unicorns themselves. As a result, the sudden afterthought in the last chapter of ‘the unicorns went blind because one unicorn really didn’t want to be a unicorn, but couldn’t physically sell his horn for selfish reasons, so the universe created a very, very specific reason for him to need a lot of gold to cure them’ made me do a mental double take. I wish the book had gone into more detail about the affliction, or about the powers of the unicorns, because other than the ending that my suspension of disbelief couldn’t surmount, I really did enjoy the story.

It’s the kind of book I would have loved in my middle school years. That got me to thinking though: how many of the books I read and enjoyed in my youth would not hold up now? If I read them again, would I be able to conjure the same feelings of warmth, imagination and excitement that I did then? Do the books that I do reread and still love continue to evoke that affection from memory alone? There are a handful of books for me that can be read and read and read some more and never seem to lose that glow. There are books that I read in my youth that I know for certain I enjoyed only because they resonated with events in my life at the time. If I were to read them again now, a changed person dealing with new struggles, discoveries and advances, would I find them as captivating as I once did?

To branch from that thought, there was one passage in the book that spoke to me especially. When Joey is learning to write the music of Shei’rah and feels she is getting the hang of it, she says as much to John Papas and he has this to say in reply:

“Nah, it’s never right Josephine Angelina Rivera. This world, that world, doesn’t matter. You never make people to see what you see, hear, feel what you feel. Notes don’t do it, words don’t do it, paints, bronze, marble, nothing. All you can do, you maybe get it a little close, a little closer. But right, like you’re talking? No. No.”

It gets to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about for a little while now. As an artist – any kind of artist – there’s a world in your head and heart which maybe you can see clearly and maybe you can’t, but it’s there, and the hardest part about having it there and wanting to share it -especially in the beginning- is getting it out with the same clarity, the same rightness with which you see it in your mind.

And sometimes there are holes in the completeness of the world, and your brain can skip over them easily enough in private, but when you want someone else to see what you see, they don’t understand the holes and it’s frustrating. It’s the most frustrating thing about trying to produce art, in my opinion. The hours spent writing and rewriting, drawing and erasing, painting and restarting never produce the result that feels right. The only comfort is that with every attempt, it gets a little bit closer to right.

And those are my final thoughts on The Unicorn Sonata. It’s a pleasant, fanciful read, with a little something for children and adults both.

The next book on my reading list is Shadowdance by Robin Wayne Bailey.


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