Thirteen year-old New Yorker Jenny Gluckstein lives a life that is, if not spectacularly wonderful, at least tolerable to her. She shares an apartment with her mother, Sally, on the Upper West Side. She isn’t popular at school, but does have a couple of good friends. And despite being short, having acne, not being graceful, and having no idea when or if she’ll ever start to have a figure, Jenny (never Jennifer) draws comfort from a close bond with her cat, who is named Mr. Cat. Then her mother Sally upsets everything by deciding to marry her English boyfriend, Evan Davies. The idea of moving to England is anathema for Jenny, but it gets worse: Evan is a soil biologist, and lands a job restoring Stourhead Farm in Dorset — Thomas Hardy country. Jenny has some adjustments to make, and makes them as we might expect an intelligent and somewhat difficult teenager to do: reluctantly. Then Mister Cat, finally freed after his six-month quarantine as a four-footed immigrant, begins keeping company with a charming smoke-gray Persian who happens to be a ghost (which might explain some of the smoky quality). And Jenny meets Tamsin.
Tamsin is also a ghost. She is the daughter of Roger Willoughby, first owner of Stourhead Farm back in the seventeenth century. The ghost Persian is her cat. The mystery around Tamsin is why she is still there, caught at Stourhead three hundred years after she should have passed on. The answer has all the elements of a Scottish ballad — star-crossed lovers, betrayal, and a villain who is worse than black.
The unraveling of the mystery is fascinating. Beagle has a facility for imparting richness to a story in ways that are both subtle and economical. The book is peopled by a cast of characters ranging from schoolgirls to farm laborers, and from boggans to the Wild Hunt; and his use of the staples of British folklore (not to mention a dark period of English history) is remarkable for its absolute pertinence.
One of Beagle’s strengths, in every one of his stories I have run across, is character. It’s not surprising, then, that Jenny is so fully realized. She is, after all, the narrator. The elegance of Beagle’s handling comes through in the ways in which she is portrayed. Jenny is a gawky, unpopular teenager, warts and all, which in this case includes petty resentments, deliberate manipulations, purposeful tantrums — all the less attractive aspects of adolescence. The fact that she admits to these flaws, from her perspective as the slightly older but still young woman who is telling the story, calls our attention to them but also removes Jenny from the realm of unpleasant children, making her a very sympathetic character.
Particularly rewarding is the depth and detail we see in the other characters, who develop in our own minds through Jenny’s insights as the story progresses and new details are revealed. What’s really remarkable is the extent to which the supernatural characters begin to come across as real people — quirky ones, to be sure, but real. (The bald honesty of the Pooka is refreshingly different and entirely believable.)
Beagle shares with a very few other writers the ability to draw compelling images from mythic archetypes. Many writers make use of these archetypes, but few manage to retain their intrinsic power: all too often, they become window-dressing. In Beagle’s hands, although he often radically transforms these icons, their essence is maintained. Mrs. Fallowfield, for example, whom we first meet as an eccentric and not completely appealing farmer in quite a minor role, is revealed at the end of the book to be the Lady of the Elder Tree, a creature ancient beyond imagining and powerful enough to command restless ghosts and the Wild Hunt itself. Beagle has transformed the old legend of the witch who lives in the elder for his own purposes, but she is still potent and more than a little frightening.
It has been said that Beagle writes “gentle” fantasy, and in a way that’s true. I think that feeling may be at least partially due to his habitual diction, i.e., the storyteller who maintains some distance from his story (even in this case, the first-person narrative has the distance of memory, softening the telling). However, when one looks at the events of this novel and the characters who participate in them, there’s really nothing gentle about the story at all.
There is much more that can be said about Tamsin, as is usually the case with a writer of substance, among which I certainly number Beagle. The best advice, of course, is just to read the book — it is, among other things, seemingly tighter than many of Beagle’s works (and I don’t know why I say that, except that Jenny is such an interesting narrator and the pacing is almost perfect), and certainly builds up to a satisfying climax.
And then, of course, you will have all the fun of discovering the things I didn’t mention.