The Queen of the Tambourine (1991)

by Jane Gardam

Constructed in the form of letters written over the course of more than a year by a 50-year-old London woman to a neighbor who flew the coop, this Whitbread Prize–winning novel presents a well-to-do woman becoming unhinged. At first Eliza seems just a busybody, penning "How could you?" lectures to Joan about leaving her husband and two teenage children in the house across the street. But gradually Eliza's letters come to have more to do with herself than with Joan. Eliza is lonely and purposeless and behaves erratically. Her civil servant husband leaves her to live with Joan's husband in another part of London. The neighbors to whom Eliza used to dispense advice increasingly express concern about her, but they themselves tend to oddness and sometimes unkindness. Absurdity surrounds Eliza; her only rock is her relationship with a young man dying of AIDS who names her "The Queen of the Tambourine" for her earrings. That relationship, of course, is doomed to end.

As Eliza reveals that she hasn't mailed some of the letters, that she's never received an answer to any, and even that she didn't know Joan very well, It becomes clear that she is an unreliable narrator. It's hard therefore to sort out the real from the imagined — but what does it matter? The story is about how things look to a woman who is losing her bearings, and to her it's all too real. As her self-revelations progress, a protagonist who seemed impossible to like at the start of the book becomes sympathetic. Eliza's story is moving and sometimes hilarious. For those who wonder what this book is doing on an upbeat fiction list, not to worry: Eliza is rescued from the brink.


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