It must be difficult for an author to have written not only his greatest novel, but arguably one of the greatest novels in his particular genre, early in his career.  I write, of course, of The Last Unicorn, a lovely, pure and perfect, haunting fantasy that neither Beagle himself nor any other fantasist will ever quite match.

This book does not match it either, although in parts it comes close.  It also, in a strange way, revisits some of Unicorn‘s themes, particularly the wonder and pain for a mortal person to come into contact with the numinous and the immortal.

Summerlong takes place on an island in Puget Sound, fictional but in atmosphere and geography familiar to anyone who knows the Pacific Northwest.  It focusses on Abe Aronson, a retired(?) historian, and his long-time lover Joanna Delvecchio, and the effect on their lives when they meet the mysterious Lioness Lazos, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the power to keep the island in perpetual spring, make plants grow and talk to killer whales.  She appears to be running from someone, or something, and Abe gives her shelter in his house.  Her presence shakes the lives of both Abe and Joanna and of Joanna’s daughter Lily.

This is a graceful, thoughtful and lovely novel that captures the mood and anxieties of late middle-age (in the case of Abe and Joanna) very well.  It provides a wonderful sense of place and clear portraits of the two elder characters.  Where it is less successful is in the handling of the relationship between Lioness and Lily, Joanna’s daughter.  We are not given enough of a sense of Lily to care greatly about her, and I found her somewhat lumpish and tiresome.  It was hard to fathom the value that Lioness seemed to place in her.  I guessed who Lioness was well before any of the characters, which was also a small irritation, as I felt that we were given enough clues that any educated person, especially a historian like Abe, should have twigged much sooner than he did.

There are many elements that suggest that Beagle is in some way revisiting The Last Unicorn, only in this case in a world that is quite clearly our own and without it being absolutely certain that magic is involved.  However, the love triangle, the attraction and danger for mortals of coming close to powers that they long for but cannot touch, all are reminiscent of the earlier work.  Some might find it slow; not a lot happens, but a lot is felt, and a receptive reader will not be left unmoved.  I enjoyed it very much, particularly responding to its mature protagonists and affectionate portrait of middle-aged longings.

I was provided a copy of this novel by the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.