The Queen of the Tambourine

By JANE GARDAM

The celebrated English novelist Jane Gardam, who will be 80 years old next year, has gathered an ardent readership in this country, thanks chiefly to the unexpected and still-growing popularity of Old Filth. That novel, beautifully written, funny, and extraordinarily moving, concerns the last days and reminiscences of an ancient lawyer and judge who, as a young man, left London for Hong Kong. It was published in this country in 2006 by Europa Editions. Now the same house brings us a reprint of an earlier novel by Gardam in The Queen of the Tambourine, which, in 1991, won the Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Award) for best novel.

Here, as in Old Filth, memory is the central element, though in this case it has invaded the present with a decidedly surreal torque. In her early 50s, childless, and married to Henry, a high-placed civil servant, Eliza Peabody has devoted her life to playing the part of the diplomat’s helpmeet. As befits her station — or, rather, her lot — she has also been active in the church and a volunteer at a hospice. To the extent that she has expressed herself as an individual, it has been through acerbic notes of advice to her similarly well heeled neighbors on Rathbone Road. The story begins with such a missive, this one directed at Joan across the way, who she feels is malingering with a spuriously game leg. She must simply shape up, advises Eliza, both for her own sake and for her husband’s: “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.”

The entire novel consists of letters to Joan, but they quickly lose their admonitory quality, becoming confiding, speculative, increasingly detailed, and, not to put too fine a point on it, odd. A couple of months after she has begun writing, Eliza discovers that Joan has left her husband, Charles, heading for parts east. Though she receives no reply, Eliza still writes on, admitting, in fact, that she doesn’t post all the letters and that she knows that Joan has no interest in them: “I use you now as a diary only, as mirror image. I see you with bare feet on a shadowy verandah sipping lime-juice, skimming through my letters, thinking gratefully of all you have escaped.” She can’t quite understand why she finds Joan and her flight so fascinating: “There is something pertinent to me about it,” she writes, “just out of sight. In shadow. What is the shadow? It is something much more serious than envy of you. It is certainly not a subterranean desire to be like you or become you, i.e. to be Charles’s wife, oh my God, no! That nose alongside one on the pillow. Drooping over the cornflakes. Reared up before the shaving mirror.”

As it happens, it is Eliza’s husband, Henry, who ends up keeping company with that redoubtable nose. The two men leave Rathbone Road and move into a borrowed flat in London. Things become fraught. Neighbors take a hovering, disapproving interest. Eliza records it all in her letters, which, enhanced by her high-voltage imagination and tinged with estrangement, seem faintly iridescent. Here is her account of being taken to tea by a certain Professor Hookaneye in the fellows’ drawing room of his college at Oxford: He “led us off through many a twist and turn along pattering marble passages and into a chamber where figures sat about in the shadows like uneasy thoughts, either alone or in well-behaved little groups, eating and sipping and now and then glinting at each other.” We are not many steps from Alice in Wonderland territory here — and we come a good deal closer when, as she reports to Joan, “a very horrible and extraordinary thing happened. Hookaneye disintegrated. The lanky, beautifully finished, excellently dressed body?shimmered and vibrated and melted and liquefied and began to twirl itself down into the mediaeval drainage so that in no time at all only the toe of a shoe showed there — polished black, like the top of a little lost cricket ball.”

What exactly is going on here? As this event occurs less than a quarter of the way through the novel and there is much to be revealed afterward, I think I puncture the plot’s tension only a little by telling you that this is where we finally know for certain what we have been beginning to suspect: Eliza is as mad as a hatter.

There are many readers -- and I am one — who would not welcome the idea of reading a book made up of a series of letters written by a madwoman, a character whose delusions populate the page with phantoms. The dread words “magic realism” spring to mind. But Gardam makes it work. Some of the story’s strands are plucked from Eliza’s tragic past, others from events around her, and both are knit ingeniously together. Eliza inadvertently inserts little signposts along the way pointing to reality (as we understand it) by recording the puzzled, even wary, responses she gets at certain junctures. Gradually her reminiscences reveal the causes of her emotional state and throw light on the devices by which she has invested the world of Rathbone Road with the emblems of her sorrow. Everyday reality and Eliza’s apprehension of it may not correspond to each other, but they do intersect, and the discovery of how is part of the pleasure the novel affords.

Beyond that, The Queen of the Tambourine is funny and acutely observed in the same way that Penelope Fitzgerald’s and Barbara Pym’s novels are. Gardam views contemporary society with an irony that is like theirs, born, it seems, out of similar humane sensibility and dismay at its violation all around. She displays, too, the same compassion towards the “excellent women” whose lives have been shaped by self-denial and duty and who have been made to feel unfulfilled by contemporary standards because of it.

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