Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.20.2013 
Book from: Personal collection

Arriving in the English countryside to live with her mother and new stepfather, Jenny has no interest in her surroundings, until she meets Tamsin. Since her death over 300 years ago, Tamsin has haunted the lonely estate without rest, trapped by a hidden trauma she can’t remember, and a powerful evil even the spirits of night cannot name. To help her, Jenny must delve deeper into the dark world than any human has in hundreds of years, and face danger that will change her life forever.

This is the book that restored my Beagle-faith after I bounced violently off of The Innkeeper’s Song; frankly I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, given how little I’ve seen it mentioned or discussed. I cannot recommend this more for fans of spooky English/Celtic fantasy, like Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, or even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. It is also quite queer, in a very sweet, nondramatized way. (Jenny remarks on her head-over-heels reaction to Tamsin by saying, “I’d never been the type to get girl-crushes before,” and that is the full extent to which she dissects any issues of sexual identity; the rest of the time she just goes on loving Tamsin.)

The initial few chapters – when it’s not clear yet what sort of haunted universe Jenny has stepped into, and her encounters with the uncanny are glancing and inexplicable – are by far the creepiest. But even once the central mystery is mostly laid bare, the combination of characters and world, both fantastical and actual-historical, are terrifically compelling.

Jenny’s presence is at once electrical and earthy – she’s so jangly and hard-edged, yet grounded in a basic pugnaciousness. Her moods and increasingly desperate investment in Tamsin’s mystery propel the plot forward, through tempestuous Dorset weather and stark, tangled landscapes. (Speaking of the landscapes: I’m a farming nerd – I used to work on an 1890’s living history farm – so I adored all the tidbits about the maintenance of their farm.)

The book is also consistently hilarious, thanks to Jenny’s cranky sardonicism and thoroughly New Yorkish wiseguy-ing. There were long stretches where I laughed at something on nearly every page.

Finally, there’s an oddly captivating sense of chronological displacement about the book: Tamsin was only written in 1999, yet it already reads like “timeless” children’s literature. (It appears to have been marketed as adult fantasy, but I have a hard time not perceiving it as YA; it is just that firmly seated in the experience of a specifically young woman.) Part of that sense of timelessness might simply be the fact that the book came shortly out before the Internet really took off. There is exactly one mention of email, on one of the last pages of the novel, but apart from that, there’s no Internet detective-work in search of Dorset folklore – just good old-fashioned storytelling from Jenny’s stepfather, and the occasional history lesson from her strangely (delightfully) intense younger stepbrother. The book reads as determinedly old-fashioned, in other words, which deepens its transportative quality.

Similarly, one of the cover blurbs describes Jenny’s slang as “pungently 1999,” which I found unconvincing – her voice wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1970’s novel. Like the New York humor, this is a quite Beagley trait.

While voice is one of the things that I find consistently identifiable and loveable about Beagle’s work – Beagle stories are wry, warm, distinctly Jewish – Jenny’s stands out as uniquely insistent. Indeed, when I got to meet Mr. Beagle at a signing a few years ago, I had just finished Tamsin, and let him know how much I’d enjoyed spending time with Jenny. He responded by sharing that as soon as he’d begun the book, Jenny came alive immediately, had a voice that he could simply “listen to.”

Tamsin. Read it! Preferably when a storm is brewing.

Go to:
Peter S. Beagle: bio and works reviewed
The Unicorn Sonata, by Peter S. Beagle (1996) E: review by Emera
The Last Unicorn comic #1, by Peter S. Beagle (2010): review by Emera
The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle (1993): review by Emera

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