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TAMSIN
1999

Book cover art by Paul Youll (left); Dan Craig (right).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

With an average of six years or more between Peter S. Beagle novels, you know that what you're getting is something that has been lovingly and painstakingly crafted, and thus to be cherished. Tamsin is a contemporary young adult fantasy that stands as another high-water mark in a career consisting of practically nothing but. It's similar to The Folk of the Air in that it follows a more conventional fantasy narrative than Beagle's earliest work. But Tamsin is far better focused than that book, and it succeeds at not only giving a nice little spin to the haunted house story — it's the ghost here who needs rescuing — but also in weaving it into a historical fantasy framework and topping the whole thing off with a coming-of-age theme to boot, the latter of which is most impressive for Beagle's convincing and risky technique of narrating the novel from a teenage girl's first person perspective. The book was a well-deserved World Fantasy Award finalist.

Jenny Gluckstein is a disaffected and sullen adolescent living in New York with a mother from whom she feels so disconnected that she calls her, not "Mom," but by her real name, Sally. Sally is marrying an Englishman named Evan who, to Jenny's horror, is about to whisk them all away to the British countryside in Dorset, where he's been hired to restore a manor house more than 300 years old and turn the surrounding land into a functioning farm. Miserable beyond words, not least over the six months her beloved cat will have to spend in quarantine, Jenny finds her life uprooted and herself saddled with a new stepdad and two stepbrothers, the youngest of whom attaches himself to her immediately. If anything can get the teen angst thing shifted into high, it's a situation like this.

But things change when Jenny encounters the ghost of Tamsin Willoughby, the daughter of the man who originally founded the farm more than three hundred years before. Tamsin — who even has her very own ghost cat — was the unlucky and unwilling object of the affections of Baron George Jeffreys, the fanatical judge who ruthlessly sentenced all those who rebelled against the crown in the Monmouth Rebellion during a series of trials in 1685 called the Bloody Assizes, which were so brutal and draconian that Roland Freisler himself would have quailed. But Tamsin, naturally, already had a love, a young man named Edric who, through no fault of his own, found himself caught up in the rebellion. The expected confrontation is what led to Tamsin's fate as a restless spirit. But things aren't over for her, even after 300 years. The fearful Wild Hunt (you can look all this stuff up on Wikipedia, by the way, to get the background flavor of the thing), that mob of spectral huntsmen who chase the spirits of the dead through the skies on dark and stormy nights, are active in Dorset again. And it appears that the ghost of Jeffreys himself still menaces Tamsin, and will continue to do so unless Jenny can find a way to help.

It's all exciting stuff, seeped in the glorious pageantry of England's monumental history, with characters who, like all Beagle's characters, spring fully formed to life right off the page. The riskiest and most ingenious touch is Jenny's first person narration, something I certainly wouldn't have the guts to try if I were a 60-year-old writer. Beagle's lifetime as a keen observer of humanity simply lends him the natural talent to pull off Jenny's voice, which convinces simply because she sounds universal, and not some writer's attempt at sounding teenaged. (It's easy to imagine so many mediocre writers today filling the prose with "OMG"s and other snippets of MySpace slang to sell the character in the laziest way possible.) Yes, there are moments when Beagle himself can't help shining through; a too-clever simile here and there. But it helps that Beagle has Jenny writing her story at age 19, thinking back on events six years before. This gives her just the right amount of budding emotional maturity even to criticize her own behaviors many times, in particular her childish sulks at having to move to England in the first place, and her failure to be as loving and supportive towards her mother as she should have been.

What's more, Jenny's and Tamsin's friendship feels like a real friendship. Not once does Beagle need to oversell the whole ghost thing. Indeed, the subtle touches are what bring a convincing chill to the proceedings, all the more effective in that Tamsin is never intended as a horror story. Depending on how well she remembers her past and feels connected to her ancient home, Tamsin is more or less tangible, fading to almost total transparency and often forgetting who Jenny is as the story barrels towards its frantic climax. Devices like these are Beagle's way of controlling the story's tension levels, and coupled with our investment in the characters, it all makes for smashing storytelling.

Electrifying entertainment in every way, Tamsin blends mystery, history, and the hope of love that blooms its strongest when you're very young, into a novel sure to become as dear to readers' hearts as The Last Unicorn.