Thursday, March 1, 2012

Disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind

Eliza Peabody is not a very likable woman, as we realize on the very first page of The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. She writes an unsolicited letter to her neighbor, Joan, suggesting that she throw away her leg brace and stop being troubled her obviously-psychosomatic ailment.

"Do make a big try," writes Eliza. "Won't you? Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying."

Oh dear. This entire novel is composed of Eliza's letters to Joan, who she does not really know, but to whom she begins to write letter after letter after letter, pouring out all her discontents and confusions. Joan promptly runs off to what Eliza calls the East. Eliza continues to write to her, imagining that Joan is having a scandalously good time.

But something is increasingly strange about those letters. Eliza describes seeing people dissolve. Sometimes she thinks she sees the insides of their skulls. And no one will talk to her about Joan, or about Joan's dog, which Eliza adopts. Our narrator is obviously a loud, nosy, embarrassing woman, but her intense unhappiness and helplessness in the face of her apparent mental problems begin to pervade the letters, lending the narration an increasingly eerie drama.

I do love an unreliable narrator, and I enjoyed Eliza. Her appalling lack of behavioral filters provides a thread of uncomfortable comedy that made me giggle even as I was cringing. Her descent into madness and her eventual recovery makes this book a page-turner that kept me up at night.

One problem: The Queen of the Tambourine's depiction of mental illness strikes me as unrealistic at best. Eliza gets better, or seems to, once she faces her demons. It's almost as if the novel depicts Eliza doing what she suggested Joan do about her leg - she makes a big try, and gets over it. Perhaps a little professional help would have been in order?

But that would have been a different book, and this one, this agitated blizzard of letters sent to an uncaring acquaintance, is loonily riveting as it is. And of course, the possibility remains that Eliza's recovery is just another layer of confabulation. We only have Eliza's word for it, after all.

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