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


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"


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.


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.


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.


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.


** spoiler alert ** The second of Gardam's novels that I have read, this traces the descent of a well bred middle age lady into madness after learning of her husband's infidelity with a childhood friend, to include the birth of a daughter. Though this is the rough plot line, we do not learn of the reason for her loss of sanity until the last couple pages, which makes the telling fun. Gardam tells this novel in the form of letters the protagonist writes to a non existant neighbor. Never coming right our and stating that her main character has a clear mental malady we are left to grope in semi-darkness with this character as she goes through her days and relates events with some degree of confusion. An interesting read if for nothing other than the style, I would recommend Old FILTH instead for those looking to acquaint themselves with Gardam.

Jane Seaford

The Queen of the Tambourine is the sort of novel I love to read. The writing is elegant, clever, witty, absorbing and draws you in. The characters are real, the story both intriguing and believable. The ending quite perfect and I didn't see it coming. I first read it many years ago and have just re-read it. It still enchanted me.It's written as a series of letters from Eliza to a neighbour, Joan, who has abandoned her family and gone travelling. Eliza lives in an outer London suburb and her life is not quite what she wants it to be. All sorts of things happen to her, including her husband running off (with Joan's husband, but not in a gay way.) Eliza volunteers at the local hospice and has a special relationship to Barry, a patient there, who is young and dying. But there's so much more. All Jane Gardam's books (novels and short stories) are delightful and how could you resist one with such a delightful title?

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.


First, I love epistolary fiction, though this certainly lends itself more to journal entries than letters. Second, how much like our favorite Hyacinth Bucket is Eliza in the beginning of this book? I couldn't help but picture Hyacinth and Richard in place of Eliza and her long suffering husband. However, Gardam quickly swerves from a British comedy of manners to the tale of a woman's slow descent into madness that's reminecent of another of my favorites, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Similar to that work, the reader sometimes wonders just how mad Eliza really is and I love how Gardam makes Eliza more awareof her own madness towards the end. I really enjoyed this one and I'm glad I just lucked up on it. I'll be checking out Gardam again.


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.


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.


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.


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 can't remember when I last read something that was so funny and so sad at the same time, and not sad in a sentimental way or funny in a slapstick way. A very bittersweet novel, with the emphasis, pleasingly, on the sweet. And deeply compassionate while at the same time managing to poke fun at everyone. Quite a surprise, and now I'm looking forward to the rest of my Gardam reading.


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!

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