Friday, June 02, 2006

The early 1970s vibe

is beautifully strong in Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, which I have been wanting to read for many months now & seized upon with delight when I could finally obtain it through my beloved Borrow Direct (the original edition is out of print, but that link on the title is a new one that will be published this August, and a good thing too, it's a most delightful book).

I did find myself--not annoyed exactly--but a bit worried about the density of literary allusions in the first fifty pages or so, it happens that I am the dream reader for a novel like this since I have a lifelong obsession with Shakespeare and Keats and the ballad of Tam Lin and T. S. Eliot and Lewis Carroll and so forth, in sum pretty much exactly the same books that are so lovingly invoked here. There is something potentially insidery about writing in allusions, though, and I am not sure it is really likely that we find other people with whom we can speak this way--the novel also invokes another old favorite of mine, Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night, a book which opened up to me in childhood an infinitely appealing and at that point virtually inaccessible world of adult literary life but which came to seem as I reread it in adulthood (I do still ritually reread it every couple years, I love it to this day) to make some annoying assumptions about everyone interesting sharing the exact same literary tastes, it's all a bit cozy and elitist.

However it was not long in this case before I gave myself over to the book's manifest pleasures; I loved it, in spite of potential flaws like pages-long descriptions of a student production of The Revenger's Tragedy (which sent me into a nostalgic reliving of my own experience of acting in that play in college, I was Lussurioso....), and both the sensibility and the narrative voice are extraordinarily appealing.

It cannot perhaps supersede my most-favorite Diana Wynne Jones novel Fire and Hemlock as best Tam Lin reimagining (I must have read that book twenty times, it's another annualish reread--oh, and I've got another favorite Tam Lin reworking, a wonderful novel that I had again and again as a child from the public library & rediscovered five years ago with great delight at the children's bookstore, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope--when I was nine or ten I thought this the perfect book, and I must say it still pretty much fits the bill).

But on the other hand this one has all sorts of other virtues as well, including its being a great campus novel (set in a college very similar to Carleton, in Minnesota): it reminded me quite a bit of another novel I liked a lot, Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill. And it made me want to go and reread all sorts of things alluded to here, Hamlet for one which I have been thinking of a lot recently (what was that, the thing I read/heard that made me want to read Hamlet? Oh, those talks at the humanities center in April....) but also something I have not looked at since I was a demented bookfiendish high-school student, Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning. Which as soon as it stops torrentially raining I am going to go and get from the library.

I saw a good play last night too, John B. Keane's The Field at the Irish Rep. First play I've seen since September, what a relief to be back in New York--of course they have plays in Cambridge/Boston, I know this is quite irrational, but it's a question of the theater-going habit and the theater-going companions and I like how it works for me here much better....


  1. I have been a huge fan of Dean's Tam Lin since I first read it - about ten years or more ago. I love the very beginning where this is much discussion about what books to bring to college, as if that is the most important thing in the world to have in your dorm room (lovely!) and once thing start to takeoff plot wise it really impressed me. It is a great big book of ideas and characters and all, but a wonderful way to spend a weekend. I also enjoyed another book by Dean, "Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary" which is a bit about time travel and vampires - hard to describe but wonderful bits about groups of girls and astronomy. The astronomy in particular blew my mind - it was the first time I ever heard of Maria Mitchell.

    And I also love Fire & Hemlock. I keep meaning to track down a better copy than my tattered mass market paperback. This is one that I go back to year after year and always appreciate more than the last time.

  2. Hmm -- I read Tam Lin years and years ago, when I was around 11 or 12 (I think I can remember the particular library whose YA section I took it out from). I'll have to pick it up again, especially since I've visited Carleton a couple of times recently.

  3. I read the book when it first came out sixteen years ago and I loved loved loved loved it.

    I understood very few, if any, of the literary allusions but that in no way interfered with my enjoyment. What you don't see you don't see and there's so much else going on that it didn't matter.