Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Queen of the Tambourine

Queen of the Tambourine is the first novel I've read by Jane Gardam and though I'm impressed by her style and her writing, I wouldn't exactly call this an enjoyable read.

Winner of the Whitbread award for 1991, the book consists of letters written by Eliza Peabody, a housewife in her fifties to her neighbor Joan who has recently abandoned her family to go on a worldwide adventure. Eliza imagines herself to be a close friend of Joan though actually they never even spoke to one another when they were neighbors. Of course Eliza never gets any replies to her letters but  there are a few oddball characters who visit her bearing exotic gifts from Joan. Gardam's writing has shades of Barbara Pym but she's definitely darker and more wicked. Eliza, funnily enough reminded me so much of Mrs.Bucket from that old British series, Keeping up Appearances. Just a nosy and annoying neighbor who everyone secretly dislikes.

I enjoyed the letters but they started to increase in length till they didn't really seem like letters anymore but became more of a narrative. Did Gardam lose the plot for a while there? We do start to see that nothing is quite what it seems. Does this Joan really exist? Why did Eliza's husband leave her? Why do people in her neighborhood avoid her or treat her very delicately? Is she mad?

The book is filled with riddles but there are solutions in the end. Though I enjoyed her writing and I intend to read her other books, this probably shouldn't have been my first experience with Jane Gardam .I thought the novel started out well but became a bit muddled and flawed half way through. I've heard her novel Old Filth is brilliant though so that's my next Gardam read.


  1. You're right - definitely not a book to convince you to read more of Gardam. I recommend Bilgewater, although this is more of a teenage one. And I loved Old Filth. Big fan of her really.

  2. That is a strange premise - to0 bad it didn't carry through to the end.

  3. My mum just loved this book so much, and I didn't at all. I was completely confused. I've tried to read it twice, and I bogged down at exactly the same place each time - when she goes to visit one of Joan's children (I think) in Oxford. And someone melts. I just got fed up and abandoned it.

  4. DeLISHous! Can't wait to get my hands on some Gardam. Thanks!

  5. Aw,it's too bad it wasn't better. I've been on the look out for epistolary novels, so when I saw the cover I was all excited at the thought of finding a new one.

  6. This was also my first, and so far only, Gardam and I agree with your appraisal. I kind of lost inerest a bit in the middle, when it started to turn into a different book than the early pages had led me to believe it would be, but then got back into it again.

  7. I agree the structure did change from purely letters to something slightly more conventional - the opposite of what was happening which got stranger and more shocking. I was so glad Eliza found a way through, and I enjoyed the book very much.
    Old filth was brilliant.


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