Jane Gardam’s Queen of the Tambourine (1991)
Abacus – Little Brown, 2006

Dear Joan, “I do hope I know you well enough to say this.” And she signs it, “Your sincere friend, Eliza (Peabody).”

So begins Eliza first letter to Joan. We learn from the letters that Eliza has been having trouble contacting Joan. At first, she thought it was illness keeping Joan at bay. Then she realized that Joan had moved away.

It’s like that in The Queen of the Tambourine. You think one thing is true, and then something else entirely turns out to be true. But, quite often, this is amusing. Even whilst it is heartbreaking.

Eliza’s tone is sharp, and there are glimmers of both wit and despair in her observations about life in the homes on Rathbone Road. For, above all, Eliza Peabody is an observer.

This passage is taken from early in the novel and Eliza admits that her judgement of Joan in the situation she describes was harsh. But it was also realistic.

“I suppose I was only observing in you what was to be seen less dramatically in many women of our age in Rathbone Road: boredom, ennui, knowledge. the rich, middle-class, educated Englishwoman, tired at last by the rigours of mid-stream life, looking in the glass in the morning and seeing the face of a middle-aged woman looking back. And unable to greet her.”

So, as you can see, Eliza admits that there is a degree of disconnect between what Eliza thought was true when she was looking at Joan, trying to make sense of the world, and what was actually there to be seen.

She admits that she did not actually want to see what was right in front of her face and, indeed, because she is talking about a looking-glass, the reader realizes, very early in the novel, that Eliza does not want to see parts of herself either.

The Queen of the Tambourine is a novel in which what Eliza does not want to see occupies as much of the page as what the reader actually finds there. For the reader who is best satisfied with a beginning-middle-end story, Jane Gardam’s novel offers only frustration and confusion on the page; for the reader who delights in a psychological puzzle, The Queen of the Tambourine is fascinating.

Eliza’s letters to Joan continue throughout the narrative. But again, what is not said is often as important as what Eliza does write in her letters. Nearly halfway through the novel, her letter begins “You see the date. A month of silence. I left you in March with the words ‘the different kinds of love’ and I have nothing better to offer now. I write from habit only.”

But in between the silences, there are some very amusing sketches, often surrounding misunderstandings that Eliza later identifies as such. When she is writing very frequently to Joan, she often has to send panicked updates because something that she has shared with Joan has turned out to be patently false. And, as is often the case with comedy, unravelling the misunderstanding is very entertaining for the observer.

But Eliza is not simply the observer; she has a lot at stake when it comes to making sense of the senselessness around her. “Then, Joan, I knew I must go back. It’s all very well to receive a religious experience but one must relate it afterwards to the world of every day. I had to know exactly what had been happening….”

Yes, the Church, the Hospice, the University: the action in The Queen of the Tambourine unfolds in a multitude of places but, above all, the action is psychological. For the reader who must know “exactly what is happening” at every moment, you’d best look to one of Gardam’s more straightforward narratives (like Flight of the Maidens or Bilgewater), but if you’re up for a literary novel that keeps you guessing until the end, this one is for you.

PS How wonderful that Europa is making so many of Jane Gardam’s wonderful novels available again: she’s one of my MRE authors and I really MREverySingleOne.