Sunday, April 01, 2001

Review: "Tamsin" by Peter S. Beagle

There are good ghost stories, and then there are good stories that happen to have a ghost. In "Tamsin" (ROC), Peter S. Beagle has managed to give the reader a little bit of both.

The book begins with the tale of a 13-year-old girl, Jennifer Gluckstein, who is displaced from her home in New York after her mother marries an Englishman. She's moved into the English countryside, on a farm in Dorset. The first 100 pages of the book take an in-depth look at her adjustment to this new life and her obstinate refusal to be happy there. During this time, the ghosts are only hinted at, but the story line still manages to hook the reader.

Even when Tamsin Willoughby appears in the story, it still doesn't turn into the traditional sort of ghost story. Instead, we watch as Jenny and Tamsin develop a friendship, and Jenny tries to puzzle out the mystery of Tamsin's life.

Tamsin was the daughter of a farmer named Roger Willoughby who worked the farm during Judge George Jeffreys' Bloody Assizes in the wake of the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion. Jeffreys took a liking to the girl and was infuriated when she didn't return his affections, instead bestowing them on a musician who played for her while a portrait was painted.

The final third of the book finally introduces the traditional angle, when Jeffreys arrives at the farm to claim what he thinks is rightfully his - Tamsin.

The historical aspect of the book fascinated me, sending me to the Internet to research Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. What I found indicates that Beagle's portrayal of him is likely fairly accurate. Though sources offer conflicting reports of how many men Jeffreys hanged for treason - varying from less than 200 to almost 500 - all agree that he was known for his cruelty. The self-righteous apparition we see in "Tamsin" seems to be in line with that.

The book is written from the point of view of a 19-year-old Jenny Gluckstein, looking back at the happenings as she made the transition to life in the English countryside. It's written in a chatty, conversational style that makes it seem more like a diary. At first, I didn't like the approach, but as the story played out I found that it made it seem more real. The diary style gave me the impression that Jenny was a real person, telling a real story.

We can feel the fascination that Jenny felt as Tamsin introduced her to a whole new world, filled with wondrous creatures - mischievous boggarts seeking to make a deal with the new owners of the home; the shape-shifting Pooka who can never be trusted; the sage billy-blind that always offers the right advice at the wrong time; the mysterious Oakmen who lurk in the tangled forest; and, of course, the fury of the Wild Hunt which soars through the skies of the English countryside. The style of the story - told in real words that could actually belong to a 19-year-old - makes it easy to believe these things actually exist in our world, below our level of consciousness.

While "Tamsin" is a story of the supernatural, it's not a white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat page-turner. Instead, it's more like a meandering stroll through a haunted wood that contains spirits both fair and foul. But that only serves to make the story more effective.

With "Tamsin," Beagle shows again why he is one of the premier storytellers in fantasy or any other genre.

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