The Queen of the Tambourine
Jane Gardam was born in 1928, so when she wrote this novel about a fiftiish woman, she was ten years older than her troubled heroine Eliza Peabody, lovingly called “The Queen of the Tambourine” by her only friend, young dying Barry. Her husband of 30 years has left her for another man, the neighbours in Rathbone Road, a fairly affluent neighbourhood, treat her with condescending friendliness as the mad woman of number 32, and mad she is.
The book consists of her letters to imaginary Joan, resident of number 34, who has left her husband and two adolescent children to travel round the world. First we readers see Eliza just like her neighbours, as a crazy, over-religious and righteous busybody, but gradually we are drawn into her world and see it with her naive and tortured eyes. And we find out that the seemingly normal lives of her neighbours are just as crazy as Eliza´s. Also we understand that life has been unusually cruel to her so that insanity turned out to be the only possible way of dealing with it. In Joan she has invented an alter ego who managed to flee from an insensitive diplomat husband; who has children, whereas Eliza miscarried her only baby. Eliza is allowed to work in the kitchen of the hospice for the dying and makes friends with Barry, who treats her with tenderness and understanding.
Naturally we don´t know if she invented him, also. But then fiction is about inventing life-like characters, isn´t? And Gardam is a master at that.