April 2024
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Review: Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

tam linIn this ballad turned modern novel set in the 1970’s, clever bookish Janet heads off to college to expand her mind, earn her degree, and perhaps meet some people along the way. Blackstock is immediately full of strange occurrences; a Classics department that rides through the woods, a ghost that throws books out of windows, and boys that look twice at her. Janet not only has to cope with the strange realities of college life, but also supernatural curiosities that she’s never quite sure she’s seeing. As her senior year approaches, Janet realizes she will have to fight for the one she holds most dear against an enemy she’s never been sure exists.

Tam Lin is a book that has called to me for quite some time, and whenI saw it for the first time in real life in Forbidden Planet this past summer, I was fortunate enough to be with Ana who told me how much she enjoyed it. After that, I didn’t look back, and I bought it; it’s taken me until now to read it, but it was very worth that purchase.

For those of us who are very bookish, who majored in English and loved it (or wish we had), who love a touch of fantasy in our fiction, it would be very very hard to go wrong with this book. Janet and her friends obviously adore literature, and it would be a bit trying, I think, to follow along if you hadn’t been in love with it yourself. They are often quoting from poems and plays, and while I wasn’t totally with it on the poems, I could recognize a lot of their other quotes. How can you not love a main character who takes all of her favorite books to her dorm and is dismissed by one of her roommates for her tastes? I was defensive for her and it was only the start.

The fantasy touch is definitely a light one; in fact, this is probably the strangest aspect of the book, because it’s very uneven. The first year of Janet’s college career takes up what seems like more than half the book, while the next three speed by. There really isn’t that much fantasy here, until the very end; it could easily have just been Janet imagining things (and a very peculiar classics department). But we all know it’s going to have some fantasy; I was sneaky and read the ballad first, because it’s right in the back of this edition and I wanted to know what I was getting into so I could pick up the story better, which meant I knew what the last 20 or so pages would comprise of before I’d read 100.

I did adore the atmosphere. I love books set on school campuses (and house parties, and the like) because anything that confined makes for almost guaranteed excellent character building and interactions. Blackstock is almost a physical being in this particular book, with much of it described and Janet’s love for her chosen college, where she’s also grown up, comes out clear through the pages. The mysterious events that occur just add to the overall appeal.

So, for the impatient, this might not be a perfect choice. But for me, an odd little literary person who likes to think too much about things, and who loves character development above all else most of the time, this was a truly excellent read. Not perfect, but Tam Lin is a book I can see myself returning to as the years go by, to see what new insights it has to offer me in time.

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