Tamsin by Peter S Beagle
(ROC, $21.95, 275 pages, hardcover; published October 1999.)
In writing Tamsin, only his eighth fiction title since 1960 but his fifth to appear in the 1990s, Peter S Beagle seems to have been taking it easy. After the intense ensembles of High Fantasy voices on display in The Innkeeper's Song (1993) and its companion collection Giant Bones (1997), Tamsin is a step down: a Young Adult novel, narrated by a teenage girl, predictable in its rite-of-passage strategies and its sentimentalization of the past. But Beagle's greatest gift, his mastery of the language and atmosphere and resonance with the real of the otherworldly, does emerge in rich measure after an initial unwise hesitancy; Tamsin has some mettle after all.
But this is not evident early on. The action starts in New York, where Jenny Gluckstein, a stereotypically feisty, rebellious, pot-smoking (and etcetera) thirteen-year-old, lives with her divorced mother, whom she understands too little, and her pet, Mister Cat, whom she understands too well (too saccharinely well for the taste of this reader, anyway). She wheedles and gossips and whinges through several chapters before the scene shifts to Stourhead Farm in Dorset, an exhausted enterprise whose profitability Jenny's new English stepfather, Evan, is charged with restoring. In the old manor house, hauntings immediately begin, and as they infect the text with mystery, they also lift Jenny out of herself, an elevation devoutly to be wished.
Beagle populates the Dorsetshire night with all its traditional apparitions: boggarts, billy-blinds, Pookas, oak-dwelling wights, and the fateful Black Dog; but his central supernatural figures are human ghosts, those of Tamsin Willoughby, the daughter of the farm's Seventeenth Century founder, and of her nemesis, the Other One who (not to give too much away) was party to James II's savage suppression of Monmouth's Rebellion in 1685, and so is a lingering blight on the county's spiritual landscape. In some way, these phantoms are being held on Stourhead Farm by the preternatural force of their hatred and their love, and Jenny must break this spell, despite her own purblindness, the affectionate interference of her mother and step-siblings, and the dark inscrutability of the ghostly realm, where no entity is truly reliable, and the Wild Hunt rides in sinister cavalcade.
Once Tamsin begins to render in detail the mercurially perverse creatures of the night world -- and especially when it lets them speak in their odd dialects or in the Biblically-cadenced prose of the England of the Stuarts -- the novel flares into life. Jenny has brilliantly wrought conversations with various beings: in dealing with a boggart, she has to engage in witty bargaining; with the garrulous billyblind, there is a struggle not to elicit information, but rather to sift it for the occasional actually useful datum; the shape-shifting Pooka is eloquent but inherently incapable of sympathy; Tamsin herself is amiable but unpredictable, as her memory (which is all she truly is) wildly fluctuates. The more threatening players in the drama, the Other One, the Wild Hunt, and an inexplicable Old Woman, have their own fantastic charisma, which the climax of the plot realizes in full. In this nocturnal descriptive mode, Beagle's writing is moving and astonishing.
But the Young Adult formula remains in force throughout. Tamsin's centuries-old love, however extraordinary and exotic its terms, must be resolved happily, and therefore simplistically. Supernatural Dorset exists chiefly to serve as Jenny's mirror, in which the banalities of her adolescence can be reflected, mooned over, and (one sincerely hopes) palliated. The filter for all events is an immature consciousness. This may be a YA necessity, the text functioning as the young reader's allegory of adolescent transition; but why must one of the Fantasy genre's foremost prose stylists operate in such a mode in the first place? He should have known better; but as things stand, Tamsin is islands of magnificence in a sea of Whine.
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© Nick Gevers 8 January 2000