I read The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle in February 2009 and really enjoyed it. So when Merrilee recommended this coming-of-age story to me via Goodreads, I figured I’d bump Tamsin to the top of my to-read list. Well, it arrived in the post on Tuesday, and I devoured it in two days. Below is my unapologetically rambling review.
When her mother remarries, 13-year-old narrator Jenny Gluckstein and her beloved Mister Cat move from New York City to a run-down, haunted, 300-year-old farm in Dorset, England. Having to cope with an entirely new way of life — and a new family to boot — seems bad enough, until Mister Cat finds a new girlfriend who isn’t quite alive. The more Jenny explores the farm, the more she uncovers the darker side of mythological England, and her growing friendship with the house’s resident ghost is only set to lead her down a path that’s darker still.
Let’s start with what I liked: I loved the setting and world-building, the way that Beagle includes non-conventional mythological beasts like the boggart and the pooka (who was one of my favourite characters). The imagery was striking, and there were moments of definite creepiness (the Oakmen in particular!). Even before Jenny moves to Dorset — when she is living in NY — I got a very strong sense of setting, so that was a definite strength.
I really liked the characters. Jenny’s attitude is a very believable depiction of the awkwardness of adolescence, and she makes a strong narrator. You learn about Jenny not only through what she tells you directly, but also through the way she behaves around her step-family and around the ghosts and creatures she meets. Jenny is no passive puppet towed along by events as so often happens in these types of stories; she takes action, makes decisions, and makes you care about what happens to her.
When it comes to the other characters, Tamsin is a lot harder to pin down, but seeing as she’s a ghost, that’s perhaps expected! I liked how the other creatures were characterized, though: the pooka’s mischievousness, the boggart’s attitude problems, even the Other One’s creepy, patient hatred. Not to mention Jenny’s living companions: her mother, step-family, and best friend Meena.
The plot was quite original in the way Jenny becomes so heavily involved with the supernatural world. The elements of mystery — as Jenny tries to determine what is holding Tamsin back from moving on — were well-developed, although perhaps the final resolution was a little convoluted. Overall however the plot was really gripping, which is why I read it so quickly.
So what didn’t I like? Mostly, it was the first third of the book. Early chapters are very slow moving and focus on Jenny’s move to England, her adjusting to the new environment and school, and being a general grump. It is only when Mister Cat comes out of his six-month quarantine and finds his new girlfriend that the pace picks up.
Don’t get me wrong: the early chapters provide a nice background to Jenny’s character and to the setting. However, throughout these early chapters, Jenny continuously refers to future events. The story is written like an autobiography, with Jenny saying things like, “Meena tells me I should describe x, so I’ll try to do that”, or blatant foreshadowing like, “I thought x, but soon I was to realize that x was not the case”. These continual teasers of what was to come annoyed me. It made me feel like what I was reading was pointless, and that I should just skip ahead to the interesting bits which she kept referring to. It is only when Jenny gets to the interesting bits with the arrival of Tamsin, that she stops foreshadowing so much, and I was able to properly sink into the story, which is a shame as the early chapters are well-written.
In sum, I’d like to thank Merrilee for recommending this book to me as I did enjoy it, although perhaps not as much as she did. It is a well-written YA novel with Peter S Beagle’s unique brand of mythological creatures, and if you can see past the slow-moving early chapters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the story.