Friday, December 19, 2008

Advice from Maureen

Maureen Corrigan is always giving me ideas. She's the book critic on NPR's “Fresh Air”, so if I happen to have a pencil handy when she's talking I will scribble down her suggestions and file them away. Later, when I'm searching for something to read, I'll pull out the list. But by that time I've lost all memory of why she recommended a book. Was it a beach read? A murder mystery? A gift suggestion? I have no idea. But I decided to try one anyway – The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. The cover said it was the winner of the Whitbread award, so I reasoned that it couldn't be too bad.

The book consists of a series of letters written by Eliza Peabody, an imaginative but isolated resident of posh Rathbone Road in South London, to her unseen neighbor Joan, whom she hardly knows. Initially these short notes seem to be the work of a patronizing busybody exhorting Joan to buck up. But by page five Joan has apparently fled and Eliza's letters become longer and longer as she describes her life spiraling out of control. Her husband has left her, she barely knows her neighbors, her only friend is a young man dying of AIDS in a hospice where she volunteers.

It soon becomes clear that Eliza is an unreliable narrator. Are the odd anecdotes, sometimes sad and sometimes hilarious, that she relates to the mysterious Joan in her long rambling letters really true? Or is Eliza losing her grip on reality? Gardam does a masterful job of describing the tipping point between sanity and madness where Eliza seems to be teetering. Slowly the roots of Eliza's unhappiness begin to emerge, and she changes from being eccentric, self-righteous and downright annoying into a sympathetic character, all without losing her quirky sense of humor.

I might quibble a little with the tidiness of the ending, but I did enjoy Maureen's choice.


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