No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 01, 1998

Tam Lin -- Pamela Dean

This is one of those books that, having finished, I immediately want to turn back to page 1. And yet I am not sure that it is a 'good' book. The pacing is peculiar: while there are plenty of suggestions of magic, the magical elements take a very long time to reveal themselves for what they are. The 'right' romance takes years to blossom, too.

Tam Lin is based on the ballad of the same name, but the references are neat and unobtrusive – a book to make one think. In the original ballad, for example, Janet is caught by Tam Lin while 'plucking a rose or only two' from a forbidden garden. In Dean's version, it's while she is attempting to borrow The Romance of the Rose from the restricted shelves in the college library.

As in Freedom & Necessity, the magical is explained away: when someone comments on the fact that the mysterious Halloween riders seemed to be glowing in the dark, someone else remarks rather sharply that there are such things as chemistry majors.

It's a college novel and a discussion of literature – sometimes in considerable depth, which I suspect would be wasted on many readers. (On the other hand, Janet’s enthusiasm for Christopher Fry led me to reread The Lady’s not for Burning, which is no bad thing to come from a novel). Most of the texts that fascinate Janet turn out to have some relevance to the plot, although some of the links are tenuous in the extreme.

Incidentally, I’ve been avoiding reading Tam Lin since I first saw it in paperback a few years ago, simply because it looked so much like a run-of-the-mill Celtic fantasy. The cover art features a pre-Raphaelite, vaguely Celtic-looking woman gazing wistfully off into the middle distance, and it’s a fair bet that she’s not looking at a piece of gritty urban realism, such as Glasgow. The blurb is not much more informative, rambling on enthusiastically about the Fairy Tale series, edited by Terri Windling, consisting of novels based on well-known tales. Nowhere does it mention what this book in your hand is actually about.

So remember, children: never judge a book by its cover…

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