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Beautiful flower (lavender)


Tam Lin: Pamela Dean, Firebird, 2006.

I had known of this book for a while – I read more fantasy novels than I discuss here – and leaped at the opportunity to get this reprint, which features an introduction and suchlike as well as a copy of the ballad that inspired the novel. I’ve read and liked very much Dean’s ‘The Dubious Hills’ which is in a high fantasy setting, while it is this novel’s setting of a 1970s liberal arts college in Minnesota, USA, where unusual things are abroad that made me want to post a review here.

Janet Carter is eighteen and about to start her undergraduate studies at Blackstock College, where her father is a professor, which means reduced fees and some familiarity with the campus and surrounding area. She’s nervous and excited about the whole experience, hoping to major in English. Her room mates are Molly, who shares a taste in reading material with Janet, and Tina, with whom Janet is much less simpatico. Soon, they start to get to know more girls from their hall, which is rumoured to be haunted, and even to get to know some young men who are fellow students. Very quickly they couple up, Janet with musical Nick, Molly with opinionated Robin and Tina, after a sticky patch where she wanted Nick, with Thomas, with whom Janet had a weird run-in.

Weird is the word for some of the experiences that Janet has over her three years, of which the first, freshman, year is described most fully. She also has other experiences that are entirely typical of the era and setting – there’s a university tradition of kidnapping and abducting a bust of Schiller. The girls worry about what to wear when they aren’t studying feverishly, while Janet finds herself in a continual conflict with her academic adviser, one Melinda Wolfe, about what her major will be. Wolfe keeps trying to make her switch to a Classics major. The Classics department has a reputation for craziness, and Janet loves her English literature, but does take up some Classics courses, which brings her into contact with Professor Medeus, whom she’s seen around the campus, and who has a reputation, both in terms of academic prowess and more scurilous rumours.

At the same time, Janet is worried by several things about Blackstock that don’t make sense, especially when she returns home for family dinners or holidays. She’s worried by the fact that she doesn’t worry about them on campus. One of those mysteries is her relationship with Nick, which develops physically, but involves a lot of absence on his part, both literal and both emotional. Neither of her room-mates’ romances is entirely satisfactory, either, but breaking up (as eventually happens) seems like an unthinkable upheaval.

Knowing that this was, in some way, related to fairies (the book refers more to Elfland), I was always a half-step ahead of Janet, but the supernatural and fantastical mysteries that Janet is part-aware of make you turn the pages. It’s also an involving description of student life at the time, and I don’t think I’ve covered quite how much Janet’s intellectual life as well as finding of herself, is a part of the novel. She, like Nick, Robin, Thomas and, to a lesser degree Molly, is one of those characters who can quote poetry (most especially Shakespeare) endlessly – one sympathises with prosaic Tina here. Well, I did, even if I understood Janet’s irritation with Tina too.

Theatre is a big part of the plot, as is literary allusion, and the depiction of Minnesotan seasons and flora as contributing to atmosphere.

I felt some of what Dean describes in her afterword, a nostalgia for the communal life of young people who were mainly at university to get an education, although my university experience, some twenty years later in a different continent, did not involve such strange goings on. I don’t think the food was as hastly either! The setting is so vivid that you accept the idea that the Seelie Court would turn up there, although there were a few little things that were never resolved entirely.

It also makes me feel bad for never having seen Hamlet performed, or studied Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, or for not appreciating Keats. University-set books have this effect on me. This one made me aware that I didn’t have the critical tools, or the wherewithal, to judge style, which Janet is gaining. I can merely pay the novel the compliment of having been drawn into this world where student graffiti is poetic quotations, where friendships have their edges, but endure too, and the development of Janet’s love story. Indeed, it’s probably the best novel I’ve read so far this year.

This entry was originally posted at http://feather-ghyll.dreamwidth.org/139770.html. Please comment wherever you prefer to.


Girl reader

April 2018



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