This book, by Jane Gardam follows a one-sided correspondence by Eliza Peabody, a 50-year-old housewife living in South London, and a former neighbour, Joan, who has left her husband and family behind to travel the world.
Eliza's world is a cold and lonely one which initially follows the traditional tracks of a suburban woman of late middle-age. Her letters are concerned mostly with the other people living in the street and her work at a local hospice.
As the book progresses, we see the deterioration of Eliza's marriage, and her departure from staid predictability into erratic behaviour. The prose she writes also shifts from the conventional to a more wild and off-the-wall style. She stops judging and berating Joan, and her envy for the other woman's freedom becomes evident.
The characters Eliza encounters are finely drawn -- maiden ladies with a history of rebellion, harassed schoolteachers, curates and nuns, an elderly Jew, a writer of children's books and Charles, Simon and Sarah - the family Joan has left behind, and Eliza adopts . Most importantly of all there is Barry, an AIDS patient at the hospice whom Eliza loves, and who loves her -- a platonic, but deep, enduring and satisfying relationship.
By turns funny, touching and tragic this is a beautifully written book which explores the mind and life of a woman from the inside, and contains revelations about how much we can learn about people from the people themselves -- and how far we can be misled.
A wonderful book, Queen of the Tambourine won the 1991 Whitbread Prize.