Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tam Lin

I've never done a proper post about Tam Lin, though I mention it all the time. I even promised one in my very first post here, the last time I reread it.

I've read every novel Pamela Dean has written, and am terribly excited about the new one she's writing, especially since she hasn't published one since 1998. Tam Lin is my favourite, though I have a certain fondness for The Secret Country trilogy.

You may or may not know the story of the ballad of Tam Lin--I didn't the first time I read the book, and I think my enjoyment of it benefited from this. I was so wrapped up in the story I didn't even realize who Tam Lin was. Though I was completely surprised by the story's outcome on my first reading, knowing the ending has done no harm to my rereadings.

Janet Carter, our heroine and the character through whom, despite the third person telling, we view the story, is a freshman at Blackstock College in 1971. She's an English major, and her father is an English professor at Blackstock, so she's been reading Shakespeare and Keats since she was small. She has two roommates, Molly and Tina, and sundry Classics major friends, notably Nick, Thomas, and Robin. The book plows through her freshman year, meals in various dining halls with unfortunate food, trips to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, walks around campus, and a good dose of suspicious, slightly supernatural events, then moves on to tell the rest of her time at Blackstock, ending fall of her senior year. There is much talk of college life, classes fascinating and dull alike, studying, love affairs, friendships and their problems. It is this couching of relative ordinariness that shows the extraordinary parts of the story so well, and that distracts us from putting together all the clues. We learn in the first few pages that Classics majors are a little weird--it's a campus joke even Janet's little brother finds funny. We soon learn that the whole Classics department is suspicious, and then of course Janet has to deal with the ghost that throws books out the window of her dorm room. And whether or not you know the story of Tam Lin and can predict how it will turn out for Janet, there are still mysteries left to solve.

Why do I love this book so very much? First of all, Pamela Dean is a lovely writer--dryly humorous, and so very good at the urban fantasy genre, giving us the bits of normal life as well as the fantasy, so that it all seems so much more believable. Secondly, the book is absolutely full of literary references; they're all quoting constantly and making parallels with bits of literature. On the one hand this is idealistically pleasing, since wouldn't it be lovely to be able to quote Shakespeare all the time and have people who could quote him back to you? I always thought it would, or maybe I just discovered Pamela Dean's novels and realized I would have loved to grow up reading Shakespeare. On the other hand, it's easy to make these references a game, seeing which ones you catch and then rereading the book again later and catching more of them, some maybe you hadn't first realized were references at all. And as I mentioned yesterday, Tam Lin always inspires me to more reading, which can't be anything but good. Third, for ages this has been my college book. I read it for a view of college and always envy Janet all she gets to learn. Blackstock is heavily based on Carleton College (minus the suspicious Classics department and the ghosts, of course), and this is pretty much the main reason I applied to Carleton. I didn't get in, but still Tam Lin had a definite effect on where I applied to college and perhaps also how I made my decision. It's a bit fitting that I read it a month before I start college, but it's just made me impatient. I want to start learning things now.

Tam Lin is both a comfort read and a book that inspires me to read a little outside my comfort-zone, and though perhaps it's not the best book ever written, I can pretty confidently call it my favourite.

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