As an author in her home country of Australia, Tambour has skated beneath the radar, publishing to critical acclaim mostly in the States and UK. Her new novel, published by the independent press Chomu continues that trend. The recent release of award shortlists for Australian work is notable for the fact that Tambour is absent. While awards are reflective of the people who run them, rather than any merit of quality, it still remains a shame that Tambour's very fine Crandolin is not upon it, to garner more attention and press for a work that is intelligent and uncompromising and adult. There are authors worthy or support, of nationalist pride, of securing a position to ensure that such fine work is in a position to continue, and it would not be beneath Australia to support Anna Tambour more, if I may be as blunt to say.
Crandolin is a difficult novel to give a quick, one line synopsis of. It begins with the discovery of a medieval cookbook by Nick Kippax, a food critic, who notes a stain upon it. The stain is made from quince, rose, grains of paradise, ambergris, pearl, cinnamon and, of course, the blood of a virgin. After tasting the stain, Kippax is fractured and hurled through time and space. The narrative fractures with him to follow a honey merchant in the Middle East, a pregnant cook in Russia, literary inspirations, a train driver and, naturally, a man who collects the pubic hair of virgins. Except, you know, he is being somewhat thwarted by elderly women with good hair dye. Drawn along by its narrators, Tambour's narrative draws on themes of inspiration and creation, of the ownership of art, of love and responsibility, and of notions of truth. The latter, in particular, is explored in one of the books many highlights in Russia.
Due to the nature of Tambour's narrative structure, Crandolin is demanding in terms of a reader who expects a linear plot, or for every character to fold against the other immediately. Her chapters, kept uniformly short so as better to stitch her cast together, succeed in maintaining a short, punchy flow to the work that offsets the fact that no clear narrative flow (either plot or thematic) is apparent. It creates a different sense to it than the book I was reminded of in the early pages, which was Bulgakov's the Master and Margarita. While Tambour's book is not a mirror or even directly inspired by it--in as far as I know--there remains a similar quality about it when the main narrative with the Devil splits off to the narrative of Pontius Pilate. Yet, whereas Bulgakov is happy to allow long chapters to unfold his narrative, Tambour, her own never as clearly related as the formers, uses the shorter chapters to hold the reader in place, to ensure that they are never allowed enough narrative rope to lose their way.
It is a complex trick and I would argue that despite holding it together for the majority of Crandolin, Tambour stumbles in the final pages of the book. I will leave for others to decide if they agree with that, rather than to discuss it entirely, because to do so is a fairly sold spoiling of the end of the book. Sufficient to say that the end isn't as successful or, to be more precise, isn't what I wanted. There will be others, I suspect, who like how it the end arrives--and let me be honest, there's nothing wrong with it from a technique point of view, or from the construction of a narrative, but yet if I had to speak of a part of Crandolin where I was let down but just, it was the end. Nevertheless, that did not distract from the very excellent work that proceeded it, from the writing that was, at times, whimsical, funny, romantic, madcap, and beautifully written.
Crandolin is a novel I fully recommend to people. It is the work of an original, interesting, and important voice in fiction, an Australian who deserves more readers than what she has.