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


If you read reviews of this book, many will describe it as touching, which it is, and funny, which it also is. The main character is off her nut, but not so much so that she doesn't know it at some level. She's finding a way to deal with loss and mourn a relationship gone wrong, among other things that "might have been." She admits everything to herself in the end, but the reader realizes what is real and what is pretend along with way. Because the book is told entirely in letters written by an unreliable narrator, Gardam's achievement is substantial. This book was highly recommended to me by a retired English professor. He loaned me this one and another Gardam book and was highly complimentary of the writing. He was right! Good stuff.


How can a book be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time? In Jane Gardam’s hands, this epistolary novel never takes a pot-shot at anyone (without good cause), but becomes increasingly specific, focusing especially on how women of a certain age manage their falling-apart lives. All kinds of lives are looked at: those who left; those who stayed; those who worked; those who did not. There is a distressing yet comforting sense of being a victim at a disaster, being looked after by those very same women of a certain age, all of whom have seen your life and others far worse—their own, perhaps—and who are willing to wrap their experience and compassion about one like a newly-sewn quilt, beautiful and awesome, and sometimes painful to behold.Why painful? Because of all the work, mistakes, choices, energy that goes into making a quilt. Sometimes it’s a success, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes we won’t know this until it is done. This book is also like a quilt, in that set pieces are created, and we laugh with jollity at the cleverness of the creation. When, finally, the time comes to stitch the pieces together, the whole suddenly becomes something else altogether and we stand mute at the meaning and magnificence of what Gardam has managed to do.Our narrator, Eliza Peabody, begins to write letters to Joan, the woman living down the street. Eliza does not know Joan very well, but has come to have opinions about her, and feels it quite within her area of expertise to offer advice on her marriage, on her state of wellness, on her husband. She begins broadly, with two paragraphs one February, signing it Eliza (Peabody) and progresses, with increasing familiarity, through “Your sincere friend,” and “Your affectionate friend,” to “E,” and finally, dropping the signature altogether. The letters become much longer and more intimate. Joan, meanwhile, leaves the country and never responds to Eliza over the years of the correspondence. What we learn about Eliza, then, is all there is. She is generous, thankfully, for it is her perceptions that guide us through the lives of her neighbors, her husband’s infidelities, her own housekeeping failures. She makes us laugh, cry, and beg for mercy. She makes me realize that Jane Gardam should be a household name and celebrated widely throughout the world. She is a national treasure.


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. :)


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.


Well Jane Gardam is generally one of my favourite authors and indeed I am just about to invest in her newly published bumper book of short stories, but I really struggled with this one. Great title, given to the novel's heroine (is that what she is) by Barry the patient she bonds with in her role as Hospice volunteer. The rest of the book appears to be a bit of a demented muddle related by a very unreliable narrator indeed: Eliza Peabody late of the British Empire has many of the traits of Gardam's stock characters. Lonely, out of place, bewildered inhabiting a colony in suburban England that is every bit as challenging as any of those colonies she has visited overseas, if indeed she has visited any.All the elements I admire about Gardam are there, quirky voice, moments of glittering epipthany and poignant weirdness, eccentricity galore but this time for me it doesn't work and I found myself getting more and more irritated as the tale went along, not caring very much about Eliza anyway.Is this confusion, delirium one might say a prose device of Gardam's to convey post-natal depression, post traumatic stress syndrome or early onset dementia. If so she succeeds mightly as I found myself stumbling around with Eliza from drama to drama uncertain where I was, disorientated, confused and yes friends a little scared.The novel is written in an epistolic fashion with Eliza apparently writing to Joan a woman who has disappeared from next door. Is this so-called Joan, Eliza's double, did she ever exist I don't know.The other interesting facet is that this novel is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unreliable narrator and there is no reliable voice to put a context around incidents or events as they occur. I felt no resolution at the end of the novel and was left with a sense of unease as the author had some how let me down. It would be really good to know what others think. I am sure I must be missing something as this novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

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.


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.


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.


From the reviews, I expected to be laughing out loud but it may be too based on English humor for me to fully appreciate. It had some funny things, and was definitely enjoyable and crazy, but I wouldn't call it "funny". Eliza is fantastic; she is smart and discerning, even if most of the time it is a crazy discernment. It's strange to be reading and wondering what is "real" in the book, which parts of her narrative are agreed upon by all characters involved. There was gorgeous prose and fascinating descriptions scattered throughout.There are one or two swear words throughout, taking of the Lord's name in vain, and references to sexuality.


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.


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.


This fascinating novel won the Whitbread award in 1991, but I missed it. The plot takes surprising twists so that I lay awake in the night thinking about what really happened to the narrator, a 50 year old woman whose career was that of British foreign service wife but now her marriage is ending. Don't miss the scene of a children's books author visiting NYC to meet with the editor of her first adult novel.


Oh the delight of a rollicking good novel! This funny and poignant story by Jane Gardam is a terrific read. She proves herself to be a versatile writer. Unlike the emotional restraint of the eponymous character in Old Filth, our heroine in The Queen of the Tambourine seems to have no emotional filters at all. The book starts out breathtakingly manic as Joan writes a highly familiar and opinionated letter to her neighbor, who, it turns out, she doesn't really know at all. The novel progresses, letter by letter, as Joan gradually writes less advice about her neighbor's life and more about her own circumstances. The writing is exquisitely humorous in the dry, British sort of way. Here, for example, she describes golfers "in their yellow jerseys, like wandering bananas." And here she says, "He is, I know, not somebody who shows his feelings easily. Or even at all." I adored this character and how she evolved through the novel. Other than a highly disturbing incident with a baby infant, which Gardam writes of in a disconcertingly matter-of-fact way, this book deserves every star it can get!


Every now and then I have a craving to read something that is beautifully crafted, a book that is all lovely words. I heard about Jane Gardam on NPR(I had never heard of her) - she's a British author and she has won the Whitbread Award TWICE. (Nobody else has done that, so this author I had never heard of ought to be good, I thought)>And she is. The book is all letters written by Eliza to her neighbor Joan, who never responds to the letters. Eliza is witty, intelligent, weirdly insightful about her neighbors - but something is very, very wrong and her neighbors - though often overwhelmed by their own problems - are strangely concerned about Eliza. Because we come to see that Eliza is going crazy, and she has secrets she cannot tell, even to Joan. If Joan exists.Here's a bit I liked, where Eliza is being examined by a doctor whom she calls The Son of Dreariness - he is asking about her "female problems." "And how old are you, Mrs. Peabody?""I'm fifty-one.""Ah, fifty-one. Menopause going all right? Everything drying up nicely?""I had a hysterectomy at thirty-one. That's the scar.""Ah, long gone, long gone. Now I do congratulate you. Well done, well done....For getting rid of the good old nursery-furniture, my dear. Best removed when no longer needed.""What a perfectly horrible thing to say. What a foul phrase." "What? Ha?""I was thirty one." Then I added, "Fuck you."You tell 'em, Eliza.

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