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  1. #1
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    November 2011 BotM: Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

    This month's Book Club nominee is a novel by an author not known for his productivity but for his quality.



    Tamsin is a novel published in 1999. It won a Mythopoeic Award in 2000 for adult literature.

    According to Wikipedia,
    Jenny Gluckstein moves with her mother to a 300-year-old farm in Dorset, England, to live with her new stepfather and stepbrothers, Julian and Tony. Initially lonely, Jenny befriends Tamsin Willoughby, the ghost of the original farm's owner's daughter.
    Discuss!
    Mark

  2. #2
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I meant to have this one finished by now, but I lost a bunch of reading time over the last few days due to...things. But I'm about 50 pages in so far and really liking the tone of this one. The narrator has a nice, unforced conversational honesty to her.

    I'm so sad for Mr. Cat....I can't imagine putting any of my cats through that. Sounds like a horrifying experience for an animal.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Erfael View Post
    I meant to have this one finished by now, but I lost a bunch of reading time over the last few days due to...things. But I'm about 50 pages in so far and really liking the tone of this one. The narrator has a nice, unforced conversational honesty to her.

    I'm so sad for Mr. Cat....I can't imagine putting any of my cats through that. Sounds like a horrifying experience for an animal.
    I'll be starting this today. I am looking forward to it.


    Randy M.

  4. #4
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I tend to buy books like this from authors I like without reading blurbs or knowing what they're about. I seem them, I buy them, not much other thought needed. So in starting this on the day before Halloween, I had no idea it was a ghost story. Pleasant surprise there.

  5. #5
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    I read about 20 pages before I read the blurb and saw it was a ghost story.
    I think the opening of the novel was my favourite bit - the passive aggressive teen angst followed by the separation anxiety with Mr Cat and the alienation in moving somewhere old was well done.
    By this stage I had firmly convinced myself it was a ghost story and then: the faery intrude. The appearance of the Boggart shifted my expectation a fair bit, and actually felt out of place for me. The reactions of the characters to this didn't ring true to me either, and it was only as we got to understand the true nature of the plight of the characters that I realised why faery was part of the plot.

    One thing I have been wondering is what was special about Jenny that drew Tamsin to her? That she was foreign? Awkward? Of an age?

    I'd like to call out a sentence I enjoyed, a lovely Beagle-esque piece of language:
    Some of the Huntsmen were men, some women, some neither, some never.
    It was also interesting to see that it was based on a treatment he originally wrote for Disney. It didn't feel at all Disney-esque when I was reading it, but looking back I can see how it would be done.

    Overall, it didn't grab me as much as other Beagle books (I've read The Last Unicorn and A Fine & Private Place). I'm not sure if that's a function of the book or myself.

  6. #6
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I'm still only halfway through, and still quite enjoying it. Just met Tamsin, so I'll see what happens from here. To be honest, so far this one is pushing all the right buttons for me (in kind of a Mythago Wood way).

    Knowing nothing about the book going into it, my experience has been kind of like: Oh, cool cat. I like cats, especially cool cats. Hey, we're moving to England...awesome. Old musty farmhouse in England? Even better. This seems like a ghost book...how appropriate for Halloween. Now they're in the car talking about all the little faerie critters. That reminds me, it's about time I read another book about faerie critters. I'll have to remember to ask the book club discussion about recs for good faerie critter books. Boggart?!? Maybe this IS a faerie critter book.

    So far no real complaints.

    I ran across a line I quite liked, too:

    ...it opened its mouth and this tiny, tiny, faraway meow came out. Not a real meow. More like an old yellowing memory of a meow.

  7. #7
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    Yes, nice quote. I'm not much of a cat person myself, so probably didn't "get" some of the cat stuff as much as others.
    I do wonder though:
    Why the ghost cat?

  8. #8
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    why the ghost cat? why not?
    I think the point of the faery creatures and the ghosts, made by Beagle in the last pages when Jenny thinks back to her adventures, is that they made for a more interesting world than the cold reality of Cambridge.

    I've never had a cat, but if I had one I think it would behave like Mister Cat or like the one from The Door Into Summer by Heinlein

    So .. I finished the book and I loved it. I'm quite old myself, but I could still remember what it was like to be 13, so I could relate to Jenny as the teenager with a bad attitude and independent spirit. If we're picking favorite quotes, here's something I picked:
    “...because in a way it happened to someone else. I don't really speak that person's language anymore, and when I think about her, she embarrasses me sometimes, but I don't want to forget her, I don't want to pretend she never existed. So before I start forgetting, I have to get down exactly who she was, and exactly how she felt about everything. She was me a lot longer than I've been me so far.”

    I think the book did a good job creating a sense of place - giving all those details about life in rural Dorset, the finicky weather, the dependance on the soil, the history imbued in the land, the rich heritage of folk tales and myths.
    The ghost story may not be all that original, but I loved the presentation. Peter Beagle may not have a high output, but I have yet to read a book of his and not put it in my "to be revisited" shelf.

  9. #9
    The yoyo of the universe! Toma's Avatar
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    I haven't read it lately, but Tamsin is one of my favorite Beagle books, second only to The Last Unicorn. He crafts such a wonderful atmosphere, whether it be in New York or Dorset.

    You don't have to believe in Hell. All you need is to hear someone who really does, who believes in it this minute, today, the way people believed in 1685—all you have to do is see his face, hear his voice when he says the word… and then you know that anyone who can imagine Hell has the power to make it real for other people.

  10. #10
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Well, I agree with Eventine. For me it lost a bit of steam once the ghost story got going full bore. All of the moving and settling in stuff was very engaging for me. The rest of it was fine, and still a cut above a lot of similar things, but I wished it had kept up to the level of the earlier bits. I think I'd have been completely happy with Jenny moving to England, learning of some faerie-types and growing up without any of the Tamsin stuff there at all.

    Why a ghost cat? I think your answer is simple. Disney. If it was written for a Disney movie, some animal has to rub its nose affectionately up against another animal of the opposite sex somewhere along the way. There's no romance for the narrative character, so there simply must be one for her pet.

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    Ha ha, I don't think I was expecting quite so cynical an answer! I was more thinking that the metaphysical/mystical reasons for the other ghosts don't apply to the cat. So it looks like Disney has it

    On algernoninc's quote - I think it represents something that was done quite well, the retrospective view of being a teenager.
    Which reminds me - did any one else think the creepy teacher with the interest in Jenny felt a bit out of place? Or was he there to show the contrast between Jenny's (negative) view of herself and what reality may actually be?

  12. #12
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    I think the teacher part, like the smoking the joint part, was used to present the younger Jenny as a kid growing in a dangerous neighbourhood and wise to the perils of the big city. The older Jenny, the one telling the story, I think says that her initial reaction to her teacher attentions may have been wrong.

    I also agree with Erfael, that somehow the ghost story part of the book isn't as important as the narrative of Jenny growing up and coming to love the new place - with its history and its myths.

  13. #13
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I think the creepy teacher bit may be there to set up more parallels between Tamsin and Jenny:

    Both have cats - see, a different reason for a ghost cat.

    Both have dads interested in new, crazy ways to farm the land.

    Both have older men in power sniffing after them at some point (whether the teacher really was or not, that's her perception...and it DID seem creepy).

    Both treat people they love badly through some sort of selfish ignorance (See, if you aren't nice to your loved ones, you could accidentally consign them to 300 years of being chased by the Wild Hunt.)

    That's what I have off the top of my head, but there may be more. I think it's all there to show Jenny (or the reader) how important it is that she change.
    Last edited by Erfael; November 10th, 2011 at 08:47 AM.

  14. #14
    I'm only about 100 pages in -- I've been slow -- but I think the creepy teacher served another purpose as well, alerting the reader to Jenny's skewed self-perception. On the one hand, she thinks she's awkward (note how she emphasizes her mom's gracefulness) and not very attractive. On the other hand, even thinking the teacher's attentions a bit off, she gets a tremendous boost from his thinking her pretty. That was a bit of ego-candy for her, which not only underscores how poor her self-image was, but demonstrates the power a person in authority may have over a child.


    Randy M.
    (So, naturally, only after posting did I see Eventine already made that point.)
    Last edited by Randy M.; November 10th, 2011 at 09:21 AM.

  15. #15
    Some random thoughts:


    1) I felt for Jenny, leaving all she was used to, her place of comfort. I can put myself in her position all too easily, but between the lines you can see Sally wanted to get her away from a place with creepy teachers, a charming but rather distant and irresponsible father, and friends who smoke weed. At the same time, Beagle acknowledges that any place has its dangers, although the dangers of Dorset may be somewhat idiosyncratic.

    2) And Sally needed new opportunities. Beagle does a fine job of sketching in the relationship between Sally and Evan, of showing us through Jenny how well they fit together: “Sally came to stand beside him, and Evan put his arm around her. That made me feel funny – not so much him, but the way she flowed against him like water, which I’d never ever seen her do with anybody.” And there are other lines and passages that indicate how well they merge, show the partnership they’re forging – sometimes simultaneously indicating Jenny’s jealousy.

    3) Why cats? Well, early on Mister Cat is the locus of good sense, or at least Mister Cat is where the older Jenny locates the more sensible reactions to what is happening. Young Jenny gets defensive, scared and argumentative, and Mister Cat sniffs and acts like it’s beneath her – and certainly beneath him – and she adjusts to live up to his higher expectations.

    4) Why Jenny? Because of Mister Cat and, probably because of Julian. Tamsin choose Jenny from what she saw of her and that included the unconditional love of the cat for Jenny and how it was reciprocated, much like Tamsin and Miss Sophia Brown. It also included how Jenny, prickly and belligerent in so many situations, showed a good deal of patience with Julian, who is obviously in so many ways a nuisance, but also good-hearted; his adoption of her from the first is one of the most endearing things about the novel.

    5) I can understand how the early part of the novel could seem the most engaging and Tamsin's story not as interesting, but I found the thought of a ghost only holding itself together through an effort of memory fascinating. Usually literary ghosts are a product of intense emotion. I've read quite a number of ghost stories and I can't recall a ghost whose composition was so reliant on its own memory. And that ties in with Jenny's impetus to write the book, which is to, essentially, honor and not forget her younger self, warts and all.

    Most of Tamsin revolves around memory in one way or another: Jenny's growing pains from dealing with the memories of life in NYC contrasted to the very different life she finds around Dorset; the older Jenny's coming to grips with the sometimes frustrating, sometimes admirable young girl she was when she went through her adventure with Tamsin and, as Algernoninc pointed out, finding her way from the worlds intersecting in Dorset to the seemingly less abundant reality of Cambridge (and isn’t it interesting that a Pooka could be so instructive and insightful?);
    Spoiler:
    Tamsin's efforts to remain somehow whole and coherent against a force dedicated to absorbing her and incorporating her within itself, and that effort mostly involved with remembering her life and her love; the Judge's memory of his love for Tamsin, no matter how twisted and skewed, and his memory of hatred for ... well, just about everyone.
    (Toma, you quoted one of the paragraphs I marked in my copy of the novel; it's another instance of Beagle observing how people behave and finding pitch-perfect phrases to convey it.)

    Interwoven with this is Jenny coming to appreciate something about her new surroundings: Tamsin and Meena are her entry into her new surroundings, finding what there is about Dorset that she can love and adopt as her own or adapt to. There is a wonder and abundance to this new world that makes Eighty-Third Street seem walled off and even provincial for all the big city around it. Jenny was on the cusp of growing up, teetering on the brink of a self-awareness that would lead to understanding others but hung up on that cusp, not moving forward. Without both the romantic and prosaic life of Tamsin to latch onto, her entry into empathy for others might have been much delayed or stunted.


    Randy M.

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