We all know what it's like to wish to be something or somewhere else -- to fantasize. An opinion as much as an escape, a fantasy may be touching, amusing, dangerous, or instructive -- and URsula LeGuin's "The Beginning Place" has all these qualities.
It is a story of several places, each proceeding from the other. First, it depicts with chilling accuracy an unnamed metropolis, perhaps Los Angeles or one of its many parodies -- a place where families are broken and badly repaired, where lawn furniture is indistinguishable from litter. It is the place from which -- in different ways, at different times -- Hugh and Irena flee.
The second place, implied in the book's title, is founded and settled by those in flight. This is an environment of peace and wholeness, a milieu of integrity and permanence, an antidote which begins at a secret, refreshing stream and leads to Tembreabrezi, a medieval mountain village in which coherence and affection reign -- or have reigned. But when Irena visits the town, she becomes aware that something has changed. A great fear is present but unacknowledged.
That this place of necessary solace and health, this fantasy, has changed so is a cruel twist. It is an ironic, appealing touch and the strength of LeGuin's novel is partially to be found in her unwillingness to take refuge in her fantasy, in her wish to allow her characters to grow or to decline by handling, or by failing to handle, the blend of fantastic and ordinary life.
TAppropriately, the characters's struggle with the personification of the fear which has enveloped the community delivers the fine climax of this well-written, spare, evocative novel. It is an appropriate finale because the fright which grips the hamlet is a mirror of that which gripped the metropolis from which they fled; in effect, it is the same fright which prompted the fantasy. And if they succeed in reckoning with it, they can both preserve the fantasy of Tembreabrezi and also acquire the will to live without it.
My only complaint with LeGuin's book is that the denouement lacks the patience which so firmly guides the majority of the narrative. However, this flaw does not critically mar the considerable pleasure and insight that comes from reading this book. Fantasy, one finds here, is a locale as well as a vision, and "The Beginning Place" provides a view well worth looking at.