Author: Jane Gardam
Details: (c) 1991 Jane Gardam; Pub 1993 Abacus; ISBN 0-349-10226-0
Verdict: The queen of the tambourine is beautifully characterized and a little disturbing.
Reasons for reading it: I love love love Jane Gardam. And I was so excited to find there was a novel of hers that is more recent than the stuff I'd previously read (she's not tremendously prolific).
How it came into my hands: The big Oxfam in Cambridge.
The queen of the tambourine is absolutely vintage Jane Gardam, but it is also unique not just among her books but among books in general. It's about a rather hackneyed subject, an ageing woman trapped in middle-class suburban hell having a nervous breakdown. But Gardam handles that subject in an amazingly original way, and makes an extremely memorable and complex character of Eliza Peabody. The narrative is sort of first person, written in the form of letters from Eliza to a former neighbour, although the later letters no longer really feel like letters, but extended first person narrative with a "Dear Joan" tacked on to the beginning. That sounds like a flaw, but it isn't, because of the way this shift fits in with the gradually revealed background of the book. Anyway, a first person narrative where the narrator is obviously, from the first page, loopy, is something that could very easily fail badly, but it really works.
Gardam is extremely good at writing alienation. Not teenage angst, but real, almost Camus-like alienation. There's a really strong sense of how all the various people in Eliza's life absolutely fail to connect with eachother, despite busybodying around eachothers' lives. Eliza, in her madness, has glimpses of the real people behind the social facade, so that the people come across as incredibly real to the reader, even though the book has one of the most obviously unreliable narrators imaginable. The backstory is revealed with a really amazing subtlety, and the implications sneak up on the reader and get more and more disturbing, without ever breaking the frame of the rather cosy little mid-life crisis story. In terms of action, the plot is very slow-moving, but in terms of the amount of new information the reader is absorbing with every page, it's incredibly intricate. It's effective in a way that a straight life history of Eliza wouldn't be.
My only real criticism of the book is that the ending is a bit too pat. Gardam tends to do that, but it's particularly egregious in tQotT. It spoils the effectiveness of the chillingly gradual fragmentation of Eliza's life and personality to suddenly tack on a happy ending. I suppose one could read the happy ending as Eliza finally losing the last shreds of her grip on reality altogether, but that's a bit of a stretch for what amounts to, and then she suddenly and miraculously became sane again.
If you can't stand reading about middle-class, middle-aged, middle England women, you're probably not going to appreciate the good qualities of tQotT. Also, Gardam has a really odd writing style which some people bounce off a bit. I can't even describe tQotT as a superlative example of its genre; it's more than that, it's completely twisting the genre assumptions and bringing the whole thing onto a different plane. I don't think I've been so bone-deep unsettled by anything since Annie Ernaux' La femme gêlée, and the latter is an explicitly feminist piece, which at least on the surface isn't true of tQotT.