Thursday, 21 July 2011

Queen of the Tambourine - Jane Gardam

First published in 1991 - how did this little gem slip past me?

Never read any of Jane Gardam's novels before, but will be looking out for more since I enjoyed this so much.  The first 20 or so pages made me laugh out loud, the next fifty or so made me sad, and the whole of the second half of the book was  like reading a complicated whodunnit (without a body, thank goodness!).  Eliza is a complex woman, married to a former British diplomat, used to being the kingpin where ever in the world she and the old man pitched up.  But once he is stationed permanently in London, he becomes very withdrawn, and she cannot think why.  Eliza has been writing to Joan, a woman who left the house opposite in a great hurry, leaving her husband, children and dog at the mercy of themselves, and she decides to offer the hand of friendship to the family.  I found this a fascinating little (227 pages) read, and like many other readers, was near the half way mark when I started to wonder whether Eliza was everything she seemed.

This is a fine example of the examination of mental illness, but not in a depressing or bad way.  We can see that Eliza has problems, but not at first, when it is the husband who seems the bad'un, when he leaves her to live with another man.  As she struggles to know where Joan is, and why there is no reply to the letters she writes, she struggles too with the way her neighbours treat her, and how she is going to put her own life back together.  The glue that holds her together in fact, is visiting the local hospice, because there, she has a grip on life and does not feel that her problems are insurmountable judged against the dying.  If this sounds too heavy for you, it is not, it just may be a little strange - but its a beautiful little mystery story, and all is revealed before the final sentence.