Damn you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for managing to move me even when I think your book sucks.
Many of the poor reviews on Goodreads here can be summed up like so: "Le Guin is a great writer, but this isn't her best." Both of these statements are true. However, I'm not willing to leave it at that. I refuse to accept that a writer of such skill as Le Guin can have an "off" novel, that she somehow misses her mark here. Other writers might have books like that, but not Le Guin. So while it is true that I think this is far from Le Guin's best work, and it is true that I did not enjoy The Beginning Place as much as I had hoped, considering its author, there is definitely something going on here.
Let's start with the two main characters. We first meet Hugh, self-described as "fat" and otherwise unhappy in his dead-end job as a checker at a supermarket. (I'm not sure if the term has just not aged well in the thirty years since this book was published, but I at first didn't understand what a "checker" was. I thought it meant he was a "price checker," but from Le Guin's descriptions, it sounds more like he was the cashier. And I kept picturing him using terminals or, as a price checker, a little infrared scanning device. Bad, anachronistic reader!) Hugh's secret ambition is to go to night school so he can become a librarian. His obstacle is his unhealthy relationship with his mother, who is too dependent on him and far too controlling of his life. Hugh seems to have no real friends and no other solace—until he finds the Beginning Place, or whatever you want to call it.
Irena is a twenty-something girl with chips on her shoulders, because her stepdad is a lecherous, abusive husband and her mother is too "loyal" to him to get help. She's stuck in a terrible in-between where she wants to help her mom, but she can't bear the thought of going back to stay with them and be subjected to the leers—or worse—of the stepfather. She found the Beginning Place, and the world of Tembreabrezi, before Hugh. But it's Hugh that the inhabitants of this world (village?) want to go fight the monster.
Or something. I was never entirely clear on that part—or, I should say, Le Guin never fully explains the nature of the quest Hugh undertakes. The villagers are deliberately vague about the whole endeavour, although it seems like they don't expect Hugh and Irena to return. I was rather disappointed when the threat turned out to be physical (albeit with a side of psychological terror). I was hoping for a much more intellectual obstacle for Hugh to overcome; after all that dallying in the village, that was a very disappointing climax.
The Beginning Place begins somewhat strangely, in that I was not predisposed to feel much sympathy for Hugh. He seemed like a loser—and not the lovable kind. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that he is a lovable loser—sort of—just as it becomes obvious that he and Irena are destined to hook up by the end. What remains to be seen, then, are the lessons each of them learn and the resolution Le Guin provides when it comes to their respective family troubles.
It is this part of The Beginning Place that most intrigues me. Le Guin does not spend much time exploring either of the worlds she depicts. This is perhaps a reflection that Hugh and Irena do not fully belong in either world—at least not until the ending. Compared to her other books, however, this makes for a very unusual experience. Even her prose style feels different, much less engaging and detailed than I would expect from her. Yet it is still noticeably Le Guinish. Even at its most descriptive, her prose is not straightforward, not meant to be too literal. As a work of magical realism, The Beginning Place speaks volumes with its juxtaposition of "real life" with the surreal Tembreabrezi.
Both Hugh and Irena need to do some growing up, and that's what the adventure in this story is about. Like a lot of escapist fantasy, Tembreabrezi and the woods that lead to it begin as a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the parts of their lives from which Hugh and Irena want to escape. Then it presents its own challenge, manifesting as a sort of quest that Hugh and Irena must complete to come of age.
And true to form, Le Guin does not deliver the expected epic quest and its equally epic resolution. Instead, Hugh and Irena succeed, but it is success tinged with a sense of regret and confusion. It is more about their journey home, and finding solace in each other rather than in their place or their time. Hugh and Irena finally forge what they have needed all along: a connection with someone else.
It sounds trite, and that may be true. The ending is predictable, but in a reassuring sort of way. From the beginning of The Beginning Place to the end, Le Guin seems to alternate between fulfilling our expectations and defying them. What does not work for me is the drabness of the worlds she describes. Neither our world nor Tembreabrezi ever feels very alive or interesting, and at the beginning Hugh is not a sympathetic character. Though this changes, it develops very slowly, and that makes The Beginning Place unappealing, especially at first.
So yes, this is not Le Guin at her best. She brings all of her skill as a writer and a storyteller, and it shows in the themes and the development of the characters. But the setting isn't quite there, and I couldn't get that off my mind no matter how much I tried. The Beginning Place never really began, for me, and that's why I can't say I liked it all that much.