Author: Pamela Dean (pameladean)
Details: (c) Pamela Dean Dyer-Bennet 1991; Pub 2006 Penguin Firebird; ISBN 0-14-240652-X
Verdict: Tam Lin is incredibly spooky.
Reasons for reading it: Lots of people, especially darcydodo, told me I absolutely must read this, and indeed the idea of the story of Tam Lin set in a modern university sounded like just my sort of thing.
How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon; based on the Secret country trilogy, I'm more than happy to support Dean.
I didn't love Tam Lin as much as I expected to. The characterization is lovely, and there's a really evocative portrait of student life in the 1970s. But the plot kind of rambles all over the place, and sometimes feels more like an excuse to talk about books than anything else. If it were a work of literary criticism about the connections between classic literature and science fiction, I probably wouldn't read it, whereas I did enjoy the comments when they were sweetened with a story, so in that sense it succeeded.
Dean really captures the atmosphere of pre-Tolkien fairy writing, but is almost so successfully spooky that I was emotionally put off reading. There's a really strong sense of things being slightly weird and off-kilter, but the reader never quite knows what is going on. It's incredibly skillfully handled, really subtle but emotionally effective, but sufficiently disquieting that I find it hard to say I enjoyed the experience of reading it. This discomfort probably isn't helped by the fact that there's an accidental pregnancy theme, which is never my favourite thing to read about; the combination of magical with realistic horrors ended up being quite upsetting. There were a couple of moments that caught me unawares and made me slightly tearful, particularly the reference to leaving university and scattering away from your friends as "the breaking of the fellowship".
I really cared about the characters, and could really believe in the student friendships and romances and relate them a bit to my own experience of university. The trouble is that the pacing is really odd; for almost the whole book, it's just this fairly static portrait of student life with a background of things being not quite right. And then at the end Thomas simply tells Janet what's going on, and they dutifully enact the climax of that ballad, and that's it. I think I would have appreciated it more if the fairy plot had been unravelled gradually. But there are some really powerful moments, such as the first appearance of the riders, or the strange banquet of marzipan fruits.
The book I'm most reminded of is a really strange one by Cynthia Voigt that I read when I was too young to appreciate it, about three girls going to college and discovering sex and generally feeling a bit cut off from reality in the way that can sometimes happen with undergraduates. I don't remember the title, poking around on the internet suggests it might have been Tell me if the lovers are losers. But it gave me a very similar sense of alienation to Tam Lin, even though it didn't have any explicitly supernatural elements. But if someone were to ask me what it's similar to, it's probably most like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, in terms of the kind of readers who are likely to appreciate it.