Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam

The Queen of the Tambourine
How can a book be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time? In Jane Gardam’s hands, this epistolary novel never takes a pot-shot at anyone (without good cause), but becomes increasingly specific, focusing especially on how women of a certain age manage their falling-apart lives. All kinds of lives are looked at: those who left; those who stayed; those who worked; those who did not. There is a distressing yet comforting sense of being a victim at a disaster, being looked after by those very same women of a certain age, all of whom have seen your life and others far worse—their own, perhaps—and who are willing to wrap their experience and compassion about one like a newly-sewn quilt, beautiful and awesome, and sometimes painful to behold.

Why painful? Because of all the work, mistakes, choices, energy that goes into making a quilt. Sometimes it’s a success, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes we won’t know this until it is done. This book is also like a quilt, in that set pieces are created, and we laugh with jollity at the cleverness of the creation. When, finally, the time comes to stitch the pieces together, the whole suddenly becomes something else altogether and we stand mute at the meaning and magnificence of what Gardam has managed to do.

Our narrator, Eliza Peabody, begins to write letters to Joan, the woman living down the street. Eliza does not know Joan very well, but has come to have opinions about her, and feels it quite within her area of expertise to offer advice on her marriage, on her state of wellness, on her husband. She begins broadly, with two paragraphs one February, signing it Eliza (Peabody) and progresses, with increasing familiarity, through “Your sincere friend,” and “Your affectionate friend,” to “E,” and finally, dropping the signature altogether. The letters become much longer and more intimate. Joan, meanwhile, leaves the country and never responds to Eliza over the years of the correspondence.

What we learn about Eliza, then, is all there is. She is generous, thankfully, for it is her perceptions that guide us through the lives of her neighbors, her husband’s infidelities, her own housekeeping failures. She makes us laugh, cry, and beg for mercy. She makes me realize that Jane Gardam should be a household name and celebrated widely throughout the world. She is a national treasure.

Paperback, 226 pages. Published September 1st 2007 by Europa Editions (first published 1991) ISBN1933372362 (ISBN13: 9781933372365)

This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Bowed Bookshelf: The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam