When does the balance tip from talking too much to babbling like an idiot? What’s the difference between being eccentric or certifiably disturbed? Eliza, in Jane Gardam’s Whitbread Award winning Queen of the Tambourine, seems to be just a lonely 50-year-old housewife whose husband has left her – until she sees a man dissolve down a drain.
Organized as letters to a missing neighbor – an epistolary – the story begins with a nosy uptight Eliza, writing to give unsolicited advice to the woman who lives next door at number 34 Rathbone Road. The letters are never answered and so become more like a diary, chronicling Eliza’s thoughts; as the letters continue, they get longer and more involved, and hardly letters at all. Gardam is the author of Old Filth, and this earlier novel has all the same British flavor.
Gardam cleverly disguises real incidents with fabulous illusions, and, after a while, you will wonder which is true. When a well-meaning neighbor says, “Eliza…We’re all so worried…We’ve been having meetings about you…” – you will think the ruse is up, but then Gardam pulls you right back in with another one of Eliza’s fantastic tales about phantom pregnancies, babies stolen, Hospice patients as art critics – sprinkled with catty comments that seem real enough…
“There must be something in his head except parish difficulties. After all it takes six years to become a priest – long as a vet. He must have learned something about sick souls…”
Funny or hysterical? Observations or delusions? Eliza’s state of mind goes in and out, from the past to the present and back. You’re never sure what she is making up and what she imagines, but you know – and so does she – that something is not right.
“Hallucinations are not always produced by drugs you know, or by brain-disease. They are often wilfully conjured…”
In the end, like Chris Bohjalian’s Double Bind, all is revealed and explained. You’ll find out the significance of the house at Number 34, and all the pieces of Eliza’s story – real and imagined – come together. You will want to read it again to catch the clues.
After reading Old Filth, I became a fan of Gardam. Luckily, she’s a prolific writer.