Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Crazy is as crazy does

This is not the first Jane Gardam novel I have read, though it is the first our book club read. Prior to the Queen of the Tambourine, I discovered Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. I was moved and I was impressed. On their own, they are moving books about unique characters with utterly realistic ups and downs. Taken together, the experience deepens and the relationships become all the richer for it. One thing I found that carries over from those books into the Queen of the Tambourine is the shared experience between our lead female characters (without delving into spoilers). With that as my background, I found myself excited for the Queen of the Tambourine, and wholly unprepared for the epistolic nature of the book.

Unprepared as I was, I quickly fell into the rhythm of the writing and the cadence of the speech. Eliza is at once a frustrating, likeable and sometime pitiful character. The people that surround and support are often as ephemeral as Eliza's own grip on reality, which caused quite the kerfuffle among my book club. Some found the back and forth, sometimes repetitious, nature of Eliza's mind (the real narrator) to be frustrating and confusing. Others opted for a more go with the flow attitude and found themselves feeling as crazy as Eliza must. As this is not a watch from above with an omnipotent eye style story instead opting to put you right next to Eliza, as a reader the clues available to determine what's real, what's imagined and what's simply a combination involving some form of exaggeration can be difficult to tease out.

The droll British humor of the upper middle class comes through in Eliza's observations of and interactions with her neighbors and friends. At times biting and caustic and other times understanding, but chiding the use of humor peppered among the sometimes all-too human and heartbreaking situations keeps the book from bringing you too far down. Gardam's life experiences obviously inform her opinions and her outlook on life.

To me, drawing from other works by Ms. Gardam, she communicates a belief that life is going to be challenging, hard and often out of our control. Sometimes the best we can do is react as best we know how and weather the storms until something better comes along while finding enjoyment wherever we can, even if it is only in our head.

I loved the crazy feeling Eliza sucked me into. My life is more planned and orderly than I would like, and the experience of someone who managed a halfway functional life with a mind that couldn't always be trusted was intoxicating and new. I understand the complaints from some that reading the same event repeatedly can be tedious and for those inclined to always be more aware than the character (that's definitely me sometimes) I highly recommend letting go with this book and letting Eliza take you along. It's worth the trip.