Peter S. Beagle, Tamsin. New York: ROC/Penguin, 1999. ISBN 0-451-45763-3, hc, $21.95.
Reprinted from the December 1999 issue of Mythprint (Volume 36:12, Whole No. 213).
Reviewed by Eleanor M. Farrell
Thirteen is a difficult age for anyone, but made even more for Jenny Gluckstein, transplanted from New York City to a farm in Dorset, England, via her mother’s remarriage to an English biologist. In addition to a new stepfather and two stepbrothers, Jenny finds that in her new life she has also acquired some denizens of the local folklore population and a 17th century ghost named Tamsin. Although Dorset is rich in ghosts, Jenny finds that Tamsin has appeared only to young girls, and has spoken to none of them except herself. In the brief respites from working with her family to resurrect the derelict farm, Jenny digs into the background of the original owners, the Willoughby family, and their connections to the turbulent history and rich lore of Dorset county. Tamsin’s family, like all local residents at the time, was drawn into the conflict of the Monmouth rebellion and the bloody retribution following its failure, and Jenny soon determines that some remnants of this history holds Tamsin’s ghost to the Willoughby manor. Eventually she must face both the Wild Hunt and another ghost — that of the vindictive Judge Jeffreys, whose Bloody Assizes wreaked vengeance on the innocent as well as Monmouth’s rebels — to help free Tamsin from her past.
Beagle weaves Jenny’s discoveries of Tamsin’s story into a well-drawn portrait of a teenaged girl’s struggles to adapt to a new environment. Jenny’s voice — the story is told, as a first-person narrative, by Jenny several years after the events it relates — is fresh and believable, and Jenny’s descriptions of getting to know her stepbrothers, make friends at school, adapt to the changes in her mother’s life, and appreciate her new home are deftly woven into the intricacies of the ghostly mystery that becomes the center of the girl’s explorations. Although the book is not labelled as a “young adult” novel, its themes and characters make it ideal for teenaged readers.
Tamsin marks a welcome return by Beagle to the ghost story genre he first used in 1960 for A Fine and Private Place. The sprawling downs of Thomas Hardy country are quite a change from a quiet cemetery in New York, but the author shows a fine appreciation for the myriads of Dorset’s non-human populace: the casually destructive boggart living in the manor house, a shape-changing Pooka whose eyes are always recognizable, the almost-forgotten but still powerful Lady of the Elder Tree. Most chilling of all is the Wild Hunt, whose cries can be heard at night but are commonly ascribed to geese by locals who prefer not to recognize the presence of this dangerous host. During a San Francisco reading as part of the book’s publicity tour, Beagle admitted that he’d never been to Dorset when he found that his story insisted on being set there. He, and the reader, need not fear: Beagle’s mastery of fantasy brings Southwestern England to life as vibrantly as the author’s depictions of New York City neighborhoods or of Mommy Fortuna’s Dark Carnival.