Queen of the Tambourine

by Jane Gardam

It was the title of this book that hooked me. I envisioned a tale about a street gypsy with pretty skirts and musical talent shaking her tambourine in a band, and having delightful love affairs with men who were ever-so-slightly disreputable.

Instead, I got a story about a woman who had been through a hysterectomy thirty years before, and still hadn’t gotten over it. If people who exhibited cerebral palsy symptoms gave up as easily as this woman did, there would be no triumphant stories, and that comedienne from The Facts of Life would never have had a career.

But I digress. Eliza is clearly mentally unstable, but we don’t really see how far gone she is because this is an epistolary novel – a series of letters all sent to a woman named Joan who may or may not be a real person. She’s always been a little odd, apparently, but now that her Diplomatic Service husband has left her, no longer able to put up with her idiosyncrasies, whatever was holding her together has cracked.

Through the letters we meet a woman who has no children, no friends, no real life outside of her husband, and while I also don’t have children, It was difficult for me to empathize with Eliza, who appeared, more than anything, to need a really good shaking.

There are the requisite revelations of the secret horrors of her life, of course, made to strangers rather than to friends, but I find myself a bit empty after finishing this book. It was well written, well crafted. I just couldn’t relate.