I had the good fortune of not knowing anything about this book when I started reading it. Many books end up on my to-be-read shelf because of recommendations on book blogs, as this one did, only to lie there so long that I forget why I put them there in the first place. I decided to read The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam without reading the inside flap, just so I’d have no idea what to expect.
It turned out to be a little unnerving.
The Queen of the Tambourine is a series of letters from Eliza Peabody to her neighbor, Joan. Eliza is a difficult woman. She reminded me immediately of Olive Kitteridge, the title character in Elizabeth Strout’s novel. Both women are far from perfect, not immediately sympathetic, and prone to provoking love/hate reactions in readers. Eliza is something of a busybody, sticking her nose into other people’s lives, writing them little notes to give them a bit of helpful advice. Of course no one ever wants such a note which has contributed to Eliza’s isolation. The neighbors don’t like her very much, the people at her church dread her presence, the patients at the hospice where she works as a volunteer cannot abide her, and her husband is ready to move out.
Eliza explains all of this in her letters to Joan, who leaves her own husband to explore the world. Eliza’s letters are very funny and very entertaining. They remind me of what we lost when we all switched to email. She is free with intimate details, with her own opinions and she has a very sharp wit. For a while I wondered if she would end up a novelist. Joan never writes back.
(If you haven’t read the inside flap and don’t know what to expect and want to keep it that way read no further here today. Just know that I recommend the book.)
Of course I began to suspect that Eliza is going a little mad right away. Sending a series of very intimate letters to someone who does not reply is generally not the act of a healthy mind, especially if that person is basically a stranger. How much can the reader trust what Eliza says? A madwoman can tell the truth in ways others cannot, and Eliza lets the truth fly. But the reader cannot be certain she isn’t making things up as she goes.
Eliza has one patient at the hospice she is allowed to work with, a man dying of AIDS. He enjoys Eliza as she is, with her wild hoop earrings and errant way with local gossip. He gives her the name “The Queen of the Tambourine” because of the earrings. She says they are a gift from Joan. If he suspects she is going mad, I wonder if he sees it in part as a reaction to her situation as it was in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The two books are sisters under the skin. Had Ms. Plath’s heroine married, lived to middle age, been a suburban London housewife, she could have become Eliza Peabody, The Queen of the Tambourine.
In the years since I first published this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009 I had basically forgotten all about it. I think I’ve read a couple of other books by Jane Gardam, but I cannot recall anything about them except that I liked them and thought they were terrific. I’ve another one I plan on starting later this week.