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The Queen of the Tambourine

Jane Gardam's The Queen of the Tambourine (Abacus, 1991; 1992) is an epistolary novel, but with a catch: Eliza Peabody, a well-married but childless middle-aged housewife living in a posh suburb on the south side of London, writes all the letters. The first one is meddlesome in the worst way of neighbors.

Dear Joan,

I do hope I know you well enough to say this.

I think you ought to try to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing both him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.

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.

Your sincere friend,

Eliza (Peabody)

The second letter makes it very clear that Eliza does not know Joan well enough to be writing such letters, which get longer and longer as the months go by and Joan does not reply. With every letter, Eliza makes it all the less likely that Joan will ever respond. And then, what do you suppose, but that Joan runs off! She leaves her husband, Charles, and her two children and leaves behind a list of the addresses of British consulates around the world. In her letters, the incredulous Eliza cannot help scolding her neighbor for jumping ship. "How could you leave Simon and Sarah so close to their A Levels?"

In short order, however, Eliza is writing to Joan about problems of her own. Her husband, Henry, has become fast friends with Charles. They are very active in the church. And then one day they sheepishly tell Eliza that they are going to live together in a flat in Dolphin Square. We haven't reached the twentieth page.

Although an interfering neighbor, Eliza is a captivating writer, and we read these opening letters with all the interest that they would excite if they were actually addressed to us (as, in their sly way, they are). That the situations reported in Eliza's correspondence are manifestly far-fetched is something that our implicit faith in her genuine goodness dampens until it no longer provides grounds for objection. When Joan sends two messengers - the first, a Kurd, to fetch her jewelry; the second, the very handsome Tom Hopkin, to deliver an elaborate Asian gown - we may even begin to think that Eliza is jolly lucky to be having such interesting experiences.

Plausibility is dealt something of a blow in a letter dated February 12, at about the first anniversary of the correpondence. Sarah, Joan's daughter, summons Eliza to Oxford. She is "in trouble," and she wants to know if Eliza and Henry will raise the baby. Eliza finds this proposal daft, but what's even stranger about Sarah is that she talks just like the Queen. When Eliza confronts the man whom she takes to be the baby's father, he faints.

And then Joan, a very horrible and extraordinary thing happened. Hookaneye disintegrated. The lanky, beautifully finished, excellently dressed body of Dr Hookaneye shimmered and vibrated and melted and liquefied and began to twirl itself down into the medieval 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. Dr Hookaneye, Joan, was gone.

This marvelous event ought to prove a train wreck for the novel's claim to naturalism, but Eliza's life is too busy for us to harbor doubts. Even when the term "phantom pregnancy" is mentioned in a letter that wraps up this episode, we may continue to believe that, where Eliza's concerned, what we see is what we get. But do we see? Jane Gardam is a past-master at throwing us off. A second look at the novel reveals that there are babies on practically every page, certainly the sign of an obsession. But we think to ourselves, why not? This is, after all, a novel set in an affluent suburb of the kind that produces all kinds of babies, including "unwanted" ones.

The second extended episode of The Queen of the Tambourine involves a creative writing class that another officious neighbor, a writer of children's books called Anne Robin, wants Eliza to sign up for. But the episode begins with a reminiscence of the younger Eliza's short-lived volunteer work at a local home for unwed mothers called The Shires. By now, the letters have gotten longer, and incorporate great novelistic slabs of direct dialogue, but the immediacy of a letter is never lost. After a probationary period, Eliza is finally allowed to participate in the driving of two recently-delivered mothers and their babies to a house in Belgravia, where the infants will be handed over to their adoptive parents. The grand address only emphasizes the tacit horror of a perfectly legal operation that sleekly strips mothers of their children. Ms Gardam captures it in the oddest, most glancing way. Eliza is disturbed that the adoptive parents have left without taking the toys that the birth mothers wanted them to have. The director draws her aside.

"The first thing the new parents do apparently," said Mrs Djinn when we were alone in the car together, "every single time, is to take all the baby's clothes off and dress it in new ones they've brought with them. It's interesting, isn't it? A symbolic act of some kind - nobody suggests it. They leave all the things it came with behind them. New nappies. Everything. They often just drop the old clothes on the floor. A terrible waste."

"That was the end of me at the Shires," concludes Eliza.

Now Eliza works, as she says, with the Dying. What this means is that she washes dishes and such at the local hospice. No babies here! Just before the Oxford episode, Eliza writes about visiting a man called Barry who is presumably dying of AIDS. He has a rude wit, and it's he who calls Eliza "The Queen of the Tambourine," after an old music-hall song. Barry can tell that Eliza is different from the run of volunteers, but, virtual outlaw that he is, he applauds it - and this, of course, also deflects our attention. Barry, at death's door, has no reason to countenance deceptions. If there's something wrong with Eliza, he will register it - or so we think in the novel's first third. This allows Eliza to make a statement that ought to rouse our mistrust, or at least some skepticism.

"All Charles said about me is true. I am a fool. I'm erratic. It seems I am unstable. I behave unpredictably, bossily, shallowly and my mind has no abiding place. I have insufficient to do after all the busy years, and an urge to do nothing. I look a freak - no interest in getting up in the morning. I haven't bought any clothes for years. I look like a voluntary worker, an agnostic, a Good Works freak, a municipal counsellor, a sick-visitor unpaid, and I do not care."

But it is not until the police are summoned in the middle of the night by anxious neighbors, disturbed by Eliza's behavior, that we seriously question her narrative integrity. At the very least we suspect that she's not telling us everything. In the end, we will discover why she is so fixated upon No 34 Rathbone road, the house that Joan fled, and what the garden there has to do with children. We will be told which experiences were Eliza's fabrications, and which really occurred. And we will marvel at the authority with which Jane Gardam gives the term "hysterical novel" an entirely new meaning. (June 2007)

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