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Tamsin
Peter S. Beagle
Roc Books, 275 pages

Tamsin
Peter S. Beagle
Born in New York in 1939, Peter S. Beagle graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. His works include the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air, as well as non-fiction books and the screenplay for the animated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The Last Unicorn became an animated film in 1982. He lives in Davis, California.

Peter S. Beagle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Giant Bones
The Last Unicorn Review

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

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I've always thought of Peter Beagle's (The Last Unicorn, Giant Bones) writing as sort of "gentle" fantasy. It's not so much the subjects he tackles, but how he tackles them. Pick up any of his books and you know you'll be immersed in the lives of vivid characters and unusual, compelling situations, with just a touch of sentimentality to tug at your heartstrings. Additionally, Beagle's one of a handful of fantasy writers equally comfortable with contemporary and more traditional medievaloid settings, as well as arcane mixtures of the two. What he's crafted here is an old-fashioned ghost story dovetailed with a very contemporary coming-of-age tale. While each alone would work as a separate book, Beagle's interweaving gives the piece a lively synergy which spirals around themes of love and family, loneliness and forgiveness.

The opening of Tamsin is deceptively slow -- with good reason, for as Jenny, our 19-year-old narrator, points out, "the hard part about writing a book isn't telling what happened, even if it happened a long time ago -- it's trying to call back, not just the way you felt about the thing that happened, but the entire person who felt that way."

Jenny's looking back on what happened when she was 13, when she lived in a small but cozy New York City apartment with her mom and the imperious-but-gracious Mister Cat. Her parents were amicably divorced and school wasn't too bad, thanks to her best friends Jake and Marta. Things were relatively stable, at least as stable as anything in a 13-year-old's life could be. Until her mom fell in love with Evan, a British agricultural biologist with two sons of his own from a previous marriage, and a commitment to revamp an antique estate called Stourhead Farm in distant Dorset, England.

Goodbye New York, goodbye United States, and hello to foreign folk and parts unknown. Between adapting to a brand new family, trying to understand the thick local accent, and bemoaning the temporary loss of Mister Cat, who's doomed to 6 months of quarantine, Jenny might as well be on another planet, and she makes sure everyone in the family knows about it. As she says, looking back from age 19, "Everybody says how I'd turn between one minute and the next into a sullen little hemorrhoid with feet. And I know I did. I meant to."

As if her new life isn't foreign enough, however, Dorset also seems to be absolutely steeped in representatives of every tricksy fae character from legend you could want to meet. The gabble rachett of the Wild Hunt clatters overhead on stormy, blowy nights. The old farmhouse stubbornly resists being wired for electricity thanks to a cocky little boggart with a hand for petty mischief, and "The Billy-Blind," a gnomish little yenta-type, gives Jenny more advice than she could use in a lifetime. And then she encounters Tamsin Willoughby, the 300-year-old ghostly daughter of the farm's original owner.

As ghosts go, Tamsin is a gentle, dreamy sort, older than Jenny but kind and friendly, and also fearful. She can't -- or won't -- remember the source of the fear which steers her actions even now. Something threatening lies in wait, something three centuries old which still lurks around the Dorset farmland, searching for Tamsin and an end to unfinished business. Slowly Jenny pieces together her ghost's history, connecting the Willoughby's to Monmouth's Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes, when King James sent brutal and infamous Judge George Jeffries to Dorset to make an example of those who might defy his right to kingship. The story Jenny uncovers can't be complete, however -- not until Tamsin willingly recalls what happened herself and faces that murky piece of her past. Jenny must reconstruct those moments Tamsin won't talk about, to reveal the reasons behind Tamsin's fear and the name of the dark threat that still hangs over the farm and its unhappy ghost.

Beagle handles Jenny's first-person narration with consummate realism. Anyone who's ever been 13 will recognize themselves in her voice, as well as empathizing with the older, more mature storyteller who takes no pains to hide her embarrassment at recalling her stormy adolescent behaviour. This is a dual coming-of-age story in a way. Both Tamsin and Jenny must accept their new states of existence even as they come to terms with past mistakes, taking responsibility for themselves and the future. With his latest work, Beagle has crafted a multi-layered novel with plenty to say about friendship, family, and growing up.

Copyright © 1999 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


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