The Queen of the Tambourine

July 10, 2014

Eliza Peabody isn’t quite all there. Her neighbor Joan has just run away from home and family, leaving a great deal of turmoil in her wake. While Eliza doesn’t yet know about Joan’s departure, she is certain of one thing: the unpleasantness lurking around Joan’s front door could be solved if only Joan weren’t so self-centered. To put things right, Eliza writes to her neighbor:

7 February
Dear Joan,
   I do hope I know you well enough to say this.
   I think you ought to try to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing both him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.
   Do make a big try. Won’t you! Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying.
Your sincere friend,
Eliza (Peabody)

Jane Gardam, author of Old Filth and other books, has an uncanny ability to burrow inside the skins of her characters and find words that will make them come alive. In The Queen of the Tambourine, Gardam sets Eliza’s words into letters, an entirely one-sided correspondence with her neighbor Joan, written over many months. The earliest letters chronicle the unraveling of Joan’s life, before moving into something even more unsettling, the inexplicable unraveling of Eliza’s own. As letter follows letter, we begin to realize that the problems in the neighborhood are not just the fault of impulsive housewives and failed family relationships, but the result of deep psychological trauma.

However, while Eliza’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and her neighbors refer darkly to “hallucinations,” it is hard to find evidence of real lunacy. Eliza’s world and the real world interpenetrate completely. The border between the two, if one indeed exists, must be tissue thin, an almost fully transparent veil that allows Eliza to stand on one side and look across at the other. When all is finally revealed, the overwhelming temptation is to start reading the book again from the beginning to find out what it had really been about.

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