#100WomenNovelists: Jane Gardam

Blog Post 29: The Queen of the Tambourine (1991)

7 February
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 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)

Meet Eliza Peabody, neighbourhood nosy parker, unhelpful do-gooder and narrator of ‘The Queen of the Tambourine’, an epistolary novel in the form of Eliza’s short, bossy directive that gradually evolve into long, rambling, confessional letters, all addressed to Joan, a neighbour who has done an overseas’ flit.

Eliza is an unreliable narrator, with virtually no self-awareness. At first we very much think we know who Eliza is: a bored, middle-aged, childless wife of a retired foreign diplomat. But Gardam wrong-foots us. Instead we gradually discover that Eliza is frustrated, never having been able to live out her potential – the time spent up at Oxford, the gap of children, the distancing of her husband’s career.

Both the narrative device and the voice of Eliza allow the reader to have empathy for a main character who is embarrassingly meddlesome and overbearingly bossy. In the spaces where Eliza’s life happens, we realise that there is huge loss. To compensate for this, she searches for comfort in charity work at which she appears to be quite hopeless, finally volunteering at a hospice, washing up and befriending a young man called Barry who we presume is dying from HIV/AIDS. He is the only one to truly see her as ‘Eliza’.

If you like a novel where you have to work a little to fill in the pieces, then you must read this. You will be surprised at every turn. Go with Eliza on her epic journey. You’ll barely leave her south London home but you’ll hit rock bottom with her before resurfacing to a new life.

But there’s time yet. The old women of the tribe have almost always been the wiser. If they keep their marbles long enough. Old men forget – or tend to reminisce, and reminisce falsely and sententiously as a rule. We are often very silly in our middle years but we tend to improve.

Being in my middle years and often very silly, I do hope that’s the case.

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