The Queen of the Tambourine

ISBN: 0349102260
ISBN 13: 9780349102269
By: Jane Gardam

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About this book

Eliza believes she could never hurt anybody. Her beauty, her religion, her concern for friends and neighbours give her - she thinks - an oracular power. Then, mysteriously, the newcomer across the road disappears, and no one will tell Eliza why.

Reader's Thoughts


Jane Gardam has a real gift for dialogue and this is an odd observation when talking about an epistolary novel like 'The Queen of the Tambourine.' I'm not usually fond of the epistolary genre. It's gimmicky, too often cute, and, by its essence, restrictive in scope and tone. And yet, and yet. Gardam manages to break the bounds of the form and so we get a fair amount of action and dialogue as she recounts events to her supposed correspondent.I came to this novel after having read her most recent one, 'Old Filth,' which I both mostly liked and found extremely puzzling. I'm less puzzled having read the second book. I'm beginning to get Jane Gardam, her way with characters (impressive!), her elliptical and quirky narrative style.


Oh my, what's to be done about Eliza. Once full of unsolicited advice laid out in casual notes, she was, well, yes, peculiar. Yes, she talked too much. It is no wonder Henry has left her. But, now this obsession with Joan a woman she barely knew. And now, well? The neighbors are worried. Eliza is worried. Henry is gone. Gardam's Queen of the Tambourine is a lovely, lively, poignant story of a woman's descent into madness and her journey back. Gardam, herself, is the Queen of Character. Henry James's great niece and Virginia Woolf's first cousin once removed. She is just a miracle of a writer who balances humor, plot and character perfectly. Brilliant, just brilliant.


** spoiler alert ** I wanted to like this book as it’s well written and thought provoking but I struggled with the narrator. It’s written as a bunch of letters that are never replied to. But you come to gradually realise that Eliza Peabody – the lady writing the letters – is losing her mind. Her life, marriage, friendships all appear to be deteriorating around her, but it is really her mind that is leaving her. It’s not until later that you find out the cause of this.The problem I had was that I never knew throughout the book what is real and what is not – this is the idea I suppose, but I found this made 90% of the book a bit meaningless (until the end) which made it hard to focus and maintain attention throughout and it wasn’t until the last few pages that it was all tied together - very quickly actually - telling you what is real and what was made up in her head. It’s a clever idea, and the writing is moving in the way it feels dark and tragic yet has a tinge of humour. The ending does give you some goosepimples and if you can stick it out, it gives you a little bit of reward, but personally I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it as an engrossing read.


I picked up this book because the cover recommended it for people who liked Sylvia Plath and Muriel Sparks. I said to myself, I enjoyed The Bell Jar and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. SOLD! And if you combine those two books together, yeah, you kinda get this one. The mental breakdown plus the quirky older woman. Try to ignore the garish pink cover that makes it look like chick-lit. It's not. Although, I can see how some readers might be misled by the early quirkiness of the book as well. It is funny, until you realize the protagonist is having manic delusions. Then it's still funny, but sad at the same time. I don't know anything about manic delusions, so correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't they supposed to be real to the people experiencing them? Are they able to go back later and say, "No, I made that up." I didn't think so, so I could be wrong. If I am wrong, then it's all good. If not, then I have a slight problem with the book's accuracy. But it was entertaining on almost a mystery-type level, trying to figure out what was real and what was imagined. The themes resonate throughout the book. Lots of literary illusions as well. This would be a good book for english majors, or a serious book club. :)


There is no way in hell I can write a fair review of this novel. I adore Jane Gardam. I am a FAN. I am totally prejudiced. She is one of the best writers on the planet. That said, this is 4 stars, not quite 5. Say 4.8 stars.Gardam may be best enjoyed by people who are no longer young. Her insights are continuous but tempered. She has enormous sympathy for the wounds that life inflicts but without an ounce of unbecoming sweetness. Gardam remains clear eyed, observant and sane. She has a perspective that only time allows. The protagonist here, Eliza, is complex and thoroughly real, even when the events become unreal. Massively lonely, she nonetheless tries to create a self that is whole, well informed, helpful and participating in life. She fails at it. She writes letters to a former neighbor that, eventually, she realizes will never be returned and probably never received, but she must write, must try to have a presence in someone's life. She explains her life even as it tilts. She needs to matter to someone else even if that person becomes a fiction, a pretense. She needs a venue for her own point of view which her daily life does not allow. Her husband leaves her, which is more a tipping point than the reason that reality slips away. Gardam first shows us the that Eliza's world believes that her contributions are wrong and inappropriate. Her neighbors and acquaintances distance themselves from her strong and inaccurate opinions. They rightly see her as lacking perception as to what the social graces are. She is odd and wrong. Unable to fit in, and lonely beyond bearing, reality becomes tilted. The slippery seas of her mind disorient the reader just as Eliza is disoriented. Then slowly, nearly accidentally, Eliza the crazy woman becomes a truer self, the insanity a road back to connection, perceptive about things that matter. Magically, Gardam redeems her character without losing faith with the essence. It is so well done that, as you believe in the madness, you can believe in the redemption. She is finally 'seen' by her neighbors, recognized as a person and as having value. As she is mad, she cares less about returning to the 'real' world until she slips back into sanity, finds a shore where she can rest and live. There is nothing I can say that does justice to the balance, skill, and insights of Jane Gardam. Aside from her intellectual and emotional maturity, she controls plot, page and language superbly. She is a master.So why not the full five stars? During the 'completely mad' pages, I lost my way for a little while. I suspect it was my failing, unable to let go of my own sanity enough to ride the wave with Eliza. It may be the reason some readers will fault the book. But it is so close to exactly right, it is a very small complaint.


Interesting book that took me a little while to get into. I am not always a fan of epistilary style books but once I could slip into the book I was able to read it.The protagonist is a fascinate character who undergoes a transformation. I had trouble placing the time period and thus picturing the correct style of dress and views. However, I was able to work around my difficulties. This book had its moments where it was funny, sad, and interesting. It also had lags, disconnect with the reader, and an inability to move the plot forward in a coherent manner. Overall an interesting read but only accessible to a select reader.


I stayed with this for about 80 pages. I wanted to like it more -- it's an epistolary novel; it's funny; and it came recommended by one of my favorite reader/friends (Ted), who turned me on to Mrs. Caliban and other good books where the line between reality and otherworldness is blurred.So... how did the book fall out of my favor? Well, number one, it's a one-sided epistolary novel: the protagonist narrator, a woman slowly losing her mind, writes all the letters to her former next-door neighbor, a supposed friend who may never have been her friend at all, and there is no return correspondence. Moreover, I realized that I prefer an unreliable narrator who has a foothold in sanity, and not an unreliable narrator who is mentally ill. Perhaps, too, an unreliable, unstable narrator works in a prose novel like Lolita (or Mrs. Caliban), and less so in letter form, because in straight prose, there seem to be more layers of narration (including subtle appearances by the author him/herself) and less so in the letters, which narrowly emanate from one voice.

Terri Jacobson

This novel is told by the narrator, Eliza Peabody, who is 50 years old and lives in a suburb of London. She is a quite interesting person, and the story is told in the form of letters she writes to a former neighbor who suddenly left her husband to travel abroad and find herself. It becomes apparent that Eliza is struggling to cope with her own midlife issues, and the letters show increasing manic behavior and delusions. Her husband of many years leaves her, her housekeeper resigns, and she suddenly finds herself on her own and searching for meaning in her life. The book is both touching and funny, as we follow Eliza's emotional journey to a satisfying conclusion. An interesting and fun book.


Eliza Peabody, the main character, is a lonely, middle-aged, upper-middle class woman in London. She tells us about her neighbors and about herself solely through letters written to her neighbor Joan, who never answers the letters. Eliza's stories are fanciful and hard to believe, but insightful about those she writes about and even more insightful about herself. I had a hard time with the first 50 pages or so, as her letters recounted people and events that were ludicrous and impossible to believe. But then it became entertaining to determine what parts were true and what parts were imagined by an increasingly unbalanced, but always intelligent and witty, Eliza.


Lovely writing. Gardam sets herself a difficult task to capture someone in the midst of a breakdown and render her sympathetic, humorous, and poignant; and she succeeds. The final denouement was a bit hurried, with a lot of explaining taking place, but I still felt the story held together and carried emotional weight.


I found this one to be a terrific read as a (classic British) farce; it's only late in the book did it become apparent that the neighbors' concern wasn't so "misplaced" as it'd seemed. Deus-ex-machina(ish) ending wrapped things up a bit too neatly, but Gardam is a real pro at combining the characters, setting, and plot structure into a book I really didn't want to end.

Robin Kirk

A wonderful, wonderful read -- smart, wincing, a surprisingly large scope. Sentence to sentence, one of the best writers I've read. In her artistry and skill reflecting her characters' emotions, on the level of Hillary Mantel. This is also fabulous for anyone who loves reading -- or aspires to write -- an epistolary novel. Through her increasingly crazed letters to Joan, Eliza comes out a fascinating, disturbed, hilarious and very, very funny person.


Funny, sad, and insightful Queen of the Tambourine is a wonderful engrossing read. Written as letters from Eliza Peabody to her neighbor Joan who has left her life on Rathbone Road and her husband and children. Eliza feels it her duty as neighbor and friend to keep her updated on what is happening with the family left behind. But more and more Eliza writes about her own life and times. Eliza's opinions about her neigborhood and her neighbors are sometimes hilarious and insightful - sometimes very sad but telling. Short book - I read it in about 3 hours but felt is was time well spent.

Denise Kruse

Marvelous! Eliza's story is relayed via a steady, intimate, exhausting, often hilarious stream of correspondence to a former neighbor (the jacket annoyingly gives away that she barely knew this neighbor) and by the constant chatter in her head which she unrestrainedly shares. What is real? What is imagined? How did she arrive here, in this "Through the Looking Glass" sort of place? The Children's Book Writers' meeting was indeed a Mad Tea Party. Off-the-wall characters and situations place the reader in Eliza's corner whether that corner is logical or not. So witty and entertaining! I will definitely be reading more of Jane Gardam's work!


I heard about the author on NPR and was intrigued. I mooched a copy of this book from the UK to try her out. This is definitely a fun read. You start out with the impression that Eliza Peabody is odd, then you figure out that she is crazy and then you try to sort out what is real and what is not and possibly what sent her around the bend. Along the way you have contact all sorts of interesting characters in her neighborhood (real and imagined). This is funny and touching."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"

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