Thursday, 30 October 2008
Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle
Isn't it lovely when you find a book that you like so much that you know you'll return to it over and over? I've loved Peter S. Beagle's writing since I read The Last Unicorn in the far-distant past when it was new and I was still a schoolgirl – I devoured it alongside George MacDonald's Phantastes and William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, and it was Beagle who became my enduring favourite. A few years later I happened across A Fine and Private Place in the library, and was enchanted, but then there was a long silence. There was a showing on television of the animated version of The Last Unicorn, which I found quite charming because I knew the original, but which failed to "take" with the sons in the way that Watership Down or Charlotte's Web had done.
More recently, however, something made me search for information about Beagle – it may have been because I found my copy of The Last Unicorn on a bottom shelf and enjoyed its Thurber-esque handling of fairy tales all over again. And, joy of joys, it looked as though there might be – in a very limited output in the intervening years, what has the man been doing? – two more novels to track down via Abebooks, now that having books sent from the other side of the world has become wickedly cheap and easy. I started with The Innkeeper's Song, which looked to be the more solid read, and mentioned it briefly it here – not as good as the Unicorn, but certainly worth the trouble I'd gone to in getting it (I'm beginning to look forward to re-acquainting myself with it already). I wasn't in a hurry to read Tamsin – I thought it looked, from the descriptions, amiable but possibly slight.
In the last year, though, I've read several reviews of Tamsin by other bloggers, people such as Chris and Nymeth whose posts I read because I respect their opinions (to the detriment of my book-buying budget), and for a while now I've had it on my TBR pile. The R.I.P. III Challenge seemed to offer the perfect opportunity, particularly when I saw that Susan also planned to read it. So, last weekend, I began reading.
Oh dreadful, blissful dilemma, a book I couldn't put down while at the same time I couldn't bear to finish it. Now, Tamsin is a ghost story - it isn't a weighty book, nor even an especially scary one but I was quickly immersed, even during the opening, set in New York, when our heroine Jenny Gluckstein is a being a whiny, self-absorbed teenager. Jenny is bright, sassy and pretty streetwise, and she is happy and at home in her urban jungle, and is frankly appalled when her mother Sally decides to remarry and drag her off to England, to a new family, Evan and his two sons, Tony and Julian. To make matters worse, they are destined not for London, as originally promised, but to a ancient and crumbling farm in Dorset, and her beloved Mister Cat will have to endure six months' quarantine.
The family – if they can be described as such, with Jenny prickling at every little irritation – struggle at first to settle in the near-derelict manor, hampered by the house's apparent rejection of them and their improvements. It's infested by small snickering creatures, the top floor remains shut off and unexplored, and the farmland is sour and unproductive. When Mister Cat finally arrives he has midnight battles with things with too many legs, but it is his forays into the upper floor which lead to Jenny's discovery of their ghostly neighbours, Tamsin Willoughby and Miss Sophia Brown.
Beagle has a genuine feel for British folklore, I think. There are other North American writers who incorporate themes, motifs and characters into their work (Charles de Lint comes to mind) but it always seems to me that the expansiveness of the New World isn't quite right for the essentially domestic nature of our fairies and monsters. (Neil Gaiman handles this well in American Gods, I think, not only drawing on a tradition from the European continent – expansive in itself - rather than Britain, but in depicting his old gods as suffering from displacement and loss of belief; but then, Gaiman has the advantage of a foot in both worlds, Old and New.) Even that most terrifying of British phenomena, the Wild Hunt, in Beagle's hands becomes – for a moment – a football crowd bent on rather dangerous fun, while by far the most frightening moments come from "real" British history.
Tamsin isn't a book entirely without fault – I did feel that it could have moved at a slightly more leisurely pace (or was that just my greed, and not wanting it to end?) and one or two of the characters could have borne just a shade more development. Jenny herself can be a bit too whiny but then, she is writing with hindsight, and acknowledges that her younger self was a brat. Oh, and the "University of Dorchester" made me splutter with amusement, even allowing for some very strange institutions to have sprung up in the last few years. These are the merest quibbles, however, and my pleasure was enhanced by having spent some time in that part of Dorset – in fact, I read with a particular manor house in mind, and thought readers might enjoy this link to some pictures of Great Houses in Dorset. There isn't a picture of the one I was imagining, but if you scroll down the page to Sandford Orcas Manor you'll see the sort of house I had in mind - although this Tudor building is too early for Beagle's Stourhead Manor, I feel it is a better match for his description than the grander Jacobean houses.