Peter S. Beagle, A Dance for Emilia (ROC, 2000)


This book is misleading on all fronts: its diminutive size, the somewhat upset-looking ginger tabby on the cover, even the title. But never has a book held such depth, at least not for me, because the subject matter hits close to home. I lost a number of friends before I reached the age of twenty, you see. One very close friend was walking down the street when a .22 bullet somehow entered her head, snuffing out her beauty and grace before she really had a chance to bloom. (This was back in the late '70s, so sniping incidents were particularly unheard of in my part of the world.)

In A Dance for Emilia Peter has written a tale of reality. True reality, the one which is filled with both joy and anguish. But in order to make it possible for the human psyche to deal with anguish, and perhaps even to aid in healing the grievous wounds that only reality can make, in this brief book a surge of fantasy comes spilling into our world.

There are things in this book we have all dealt with at one time or another. Who among us has not had a dream, and abandoned it along the way, only to later come across it once more and decide to strive for the golden ring on the merry-go-round of life? Who among us has not loved and lost a dear friend? Death is a constant in life. We see it on the news and read about it in newspapers. It walks by us each and every day, but it usually doesn't touch someone near and dear to our hearts. And then suddenly it does, as with my murdered friend, and hits us with one of the hardest challenges that we can possibly face in life. Peter deals with that hard lesson: the painful task of letting go, of continuing on in life, even when you feel like you can't, when all around there is nothing but darkness.

Peter offers a reason to continue, a salve to ease the hurts, a balm for the stricken heart in A Dance for Emilia. He takes us on a journey through the blackness and on into the light beyond — and in doing so teaches us valuable lessons about ourselves. He makes things clear that were not clear before.

When lifelong friends Sam and Jake were in their teens, they shared a passion for the performing arts. They also knew what it would take to make their dreams become reality: who, given the challenges they faced, would succeed, and who would not? As the years passed they ended up working on opposite sides of the country, but remained very close for all the distance between them. Their friendship was a special one, the kind most of us are lucky to find even once in our lives: a connection with the one person you can share everything with, and know their mind as well as you know your own. A friendship which holds magic within it.

When Sam dies unexpectedly and abruptly, Jake must learn how to survive without him. Life is not the same without the honest feedback, support, and shared meaning that Sam once provided, and Jake is not only completely devastated, but also more alone than he has ever been in his life. Then the last love of Sam's life strikes up a friendship with Jake: Emily, whom Sam called Emilia. She also inherited Sam's Abyssinian cat, Millamant. And when Emily's and Jake's grief proves strong enough to pull Sam back from the dead, it is in Millamant's body that his spirit is housed.

This is a tragic tale of loss. But it is also a tale of hope, a tale of healing. A lesson in how to continue with your life after a loss so profound that it leaves you with no desire to carry on. In short, this book is a gift that Peter was kind enough to share with us all, and although I am sorry for his own loss — he was moved to write A Dance for Emilia by the sudden death of his own best friend from childhood — I am thankful for what he has given us. And perhaps I can now begin to let go of the ghosts who walk my past.

[Naomi de Bruyn]

illustration from Yvonne Gilbert's cover art for the 2000 Roc edition of A Dance for Emilia

Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy ]: