29 April 2014

book musings: Tamsin

I recently had the opportunity to meet Peter S. Beagle at Fan Expo Vancouver. He was very personable and signed my ancient copy of The Last Unicorn for me. He also signed the book I bought at his table and told me he was so glad I'd bought that one because it had been fun to write. I bought it partly because of the title and the cover, and partly because, well, I haven't really read much of his other works beside The Last Unicorn. Beagle's works are one of those things I keep intending to get around to and then never do. I am now remedying that lack in my education.

I bought a copy of Tamsin, which was first published about fifteen years ago. Jenny, the protagonist, is a teenager from New York whose mother marries an Englishman and takes Jenny and her cat off to a rural farm in Dorset. Her stepfather is restoring the farm for the owners, and the house itself is in an extreme state of disrepair. Jenny, her mother, and her stepbrothers are doing their best to help with the restoration, but strange things keep happening that slow them down or simply irritate them. The guesses at the cause range from boggarts to poltergeists. Eventually, Jenny meets Tamsin.

Tamsin is a ghost, daughter of the first owner of the farmer. She doesn't remember why she is still stuck there, and her memories of the past come and go, but she and Jenny become friends. As Jenny learns more of Tamsin's story, she becomes convinced that something terrible must have happened. Events begin to conspire to right an ancient wrong and Jenny finds herself a crucial part of the action.

I took this book slowly (for me). It took me nearly a week to finish it, which is quite unusual. I wanted my first time through the story to take a while. I wanted to savour it. Typically, I gulp my books down and then read them again. Tamsin will be a multiple-read, but I liked taking my time with the story. It worked well for this one.

I did have my doubts about the narrator--she's nineteen at the time she is telling the story, but the events happened when she was thirteen. Thirteen-year-olds always think that they are more mature than they actually are, but it took me a couple chapters to accept Jenny as a narrator, since believing yourself to be more mature does not necessarily equal maturity.

What I did love was how gradually the plot unfolded. The climax didn't rush in and take me by surprise, and it didn't take up the last quarter of the book (which happens in one of my favourite novels, but is a rather extreme choice). The climax happened, and we then proceeded smoothly to the denouement (hardest part of writing for me, always, so I admire well-executed ones).

The look at Dorset is also rather delightful, since that is a portion of the UK that hasn't often been mentoned in the books I read. Now I want to track down audio examples of the old Dorset accent to see if Beagle's transliteration of it is anything like the reality (hazard of being a linguist). And I learned a little bit of English history that I hadn't studied much before (albeit fictionalized, with ghosts).

All in all, I'd recommend the book, especially if, like me, you're an avid reader of anything by the late Diana Wynne Jones.

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