Oct 21, 2008

Tam Lin

by Pamela Dean

This is one of my very favorite books. It's based on the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, retold in a modern setting. The main character is Janet, student at a liberal arts college where her father teaches. Most of this story is simply about college life. Roommates, cafeteria food, picking courses, cramming for exams, mingling with theater students who quote Shakespeare every other sentence- at least, those are the boys Janet and her friends hook up with. The theater guys are elusive, charming, and have their heads absolutely stuffed with poetry and literature. All of Janet's life has been steeped in literature, so it's no question she wants to major in English herself... or Classics, perhaps? But the Classics department here is decidedly strange, a bit creepy. In fact, a lot of strange things go on at this college (like a ghost that throws books out of windows, bagpipers that wander the campus at night, traditions involving the bust of Schiller...) though most are simply rumors and odd incidents at the edges of the story- until the end draws near, where events from the ballad get woven more tightly into the story, and Janet herself begins to realize what she's gotten involved in, and the choice she must make.

There are so many literary references in this book I felt happy companionship at the ones I knew, and wrote down lists of all the others to look up and read some day. On the other hand, I'd never heard of the titular ballad before, but just enjoyed the story of itself and then found the ballad conveniently included at the end of the book. Reading it gave me a bit more insight into the story, and made me want to read the novel all over again! Tam Lin is a delight (especially if you like bookish references and subtle fantasy) full of one young woman's search for herself in an very ordinary place where mysterious things are happening.

Rating: 5/5                468 pages, 1991

More reviews at:
Jenny's Books
Things Mean a Lot
Shelf Love


  1. Your post makes me want to grab it from the shelf and start reading it again right now!

  2. Ooooh, I'd never heard of this book (or this author!) before, but now I must have it! Off to BookMooch!

  3. I've never heard of this book, but the premise sounds interesting. Two questions: 1) What period is the book set in? and 2) Do you think it would help to read the ballad ahead of time, or does that not make much of a difference?

  4. It's set in the '70s. I would recommend reading the ballad first, just because it makes the story more enjoyable. But it's not absolutely neccessary. You can pick up on what's going on without it. (Whereas I can't say the same for Fire and Hemlock).


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