Jun 23, 2010

Tamar by Mal Peet

It seems that I’ve been having a sort of unofficial Carnegie Medal month. I could say that it’s in anticipation of Nation winning it tomorrow (I’m going to seriously cry if this doesn’t happen, though no more than a tear or two if it goes to The Ask and the Answer or The Graveyard Book instead), but the truth is that it happened more or less accidentally. I’ve been collecting Carnegie winners for months now, and suddenly I got the urge to read them all at once. So far, I haven’t been at all disappointed.

Tamar is historical novel, partially set during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. Tamar is the code-name of a Dutch man who lived in England before the war began, and who’s sent to his home country as a spy in 1944. His mission is to help reorganize the Dutch resistance and undermine German authority until the Allies arrive, while his companion, Dart, is a radio operator who reports back to London. Tamar is also a story set in England in the 1990’s, about a fifteen-year-old girl who is herself named Tamar and whose beloved grandfather, a spy during WW2, has committed suicide following his wife’s dementia. Using a box her grandfather left her to guide her, Tamar uncovers a story that goes back to the wartime period of which her grandparents never spoke, and whose repercussions have impacted her family more than she can imagine.

My experience with Tamar was very much influenced by the fact that I accidentally spoiled it for myself. When I was a little over a hundred pages into it, I let the book fall often on a page towards the end, and my eyes fell on a sentence that caused the story I thought I was reading to reshape itself into something entirely different. But you know, this wasn’t actually a bad thing. Tamar isn’t a novel with a twist; not exactly. It’s rather a novel in which the truth gradually changes shape and redefines itself. I’m sure I’d have realised what was happening before the moment when it all becomes completely clear, but knowing the truth from early on allowed me to pay more attention to the clues, and it actually made the whole reading experience even more moving.

The cover of Tamar seems to suggest a wartime espionage thriller, but the focus is actually more on social than on military history. I’m always interested in books that explore aspects of WW2 I don’t know much about, and the occupation of the Netherlands certainly qualifies. I appreciated learning about the Dutch resistance movements, the danger of retaliation that had to be carefully considered before each act of rebellion, the Hunger Winter of 1944 and the fact that the Nazis used starvation as a military weapon, and so on. Needless to say, this wasn’t pleasant to read about, but it was interesting. And as is often the case with wartime novels, the extreme circumstances acted like a magnifying glass that allowed Peet to portray human beings both at their best and at their worst.

Then there’s the present day storyline, which, unlike what sometimes happens with novels that use this kind of structure, was every bit as compelling as the historical sections. In fact, if I have one complaint about Tamar, it’s that I wish the first of the contemporary sections had come sooner. I began to care about the historical narrative a lot more once I understood just how it illuminated what was going on in the present. Which brings me to my favourite thing about this novel: Tamar is a story about the long-term impact and the far reach of wartime horrors. Tamar was born in 1979, but her grandparents’ silenced wartime experiences directly affect her life. I think this is something people have only begun to fully grasp somewhat recently. It puts me in mind of books like Stranger in the House, where several of the people the author interviewed said they were trying to make sense of their parents or grandparents’ stories because they had realised these weren’t merely history – they were a fundamental part of what had mapped the emotional dynamics of some of the most important relationships in their lives.

Tamar’s family is a complicated one, and the war is part of the reason why. After her father suddenly disappears when she’s still a child, she’s practically raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather is somewhat of an emotionally unavailable man, but he actually becomes close to her – which is why his suicide feels like such a desertion. Making sense of the burden he had to carry for most of his time allows Tamar to at least make peace with the past. The novel’s ambiguous, complex ending avoid easy answers or clich├ęs, and leaves the reader to face the extraordinary weight of history, just like Tamar has to do herself. How can someone who has seen, done and lived through certain things be expected to resume an ordinary human existence? How can certain secrets be kept for so long? And how much can you forgive, or expect someone else to forgive?

Favourite passages:
He loved her. It was dead simple, the way he loved her. Seamless. His love was like a wall that he’d built around her, and there wasn’t a chink or flaw in it. Or so he thought. But then she started to float out of the real world, his world, and he was like a little boy trying to dam a stream with stones and mud, knowing that the water would always break through at a place he wasn’t looking at. There was nothing desperate about the way he did it, though. He was always calm, it seemed. Expecting the worst and determined not to crack. She started to get up in the night and turn on all the taps, and he would get up too and stand quietly beside her watching the endless flow of water as if he sound it as fascinating as she did. Then he’d guide her back to bed before turning the raps off. One night I heard something in the living room and saw the two of them standing out on the balcony. He’d wrapped his dressing gown around her, and I heard him say, “Yes, you are right, Marijike. The traffic is like a river of stars. Would you like to watch it some more, or go back to bed?”

It’s a very private thing, losing your mind. And all sorts of people, complete strangers, get involved. It was that, the invasion of his privacy, that started Grandad crumbling. And the fact that all those people – the social workers, doctors, police, psychiatrists – were younger than him, and not as clever, but more powerful. He felt – he must have felt – control slipping away. And what he did was build the wall higher, work harder to dam the stream, work even more fiercely to keep the world at arm’s length.

“I keep thinking about the Germans in the firing squad. Killing and then killing again and again, looking at the faces…How? How did they do that? I can’t… I can’t even imagine. But, the thing is, if you took one of those men and stripped away the uniform, and sat him next to me, how different would we be? Would you be able to see murder on his skin? Smell murder on his breath? And not on mine?”
She could not tell if he expected an answer. She did not have one.
“I feel,” he said. “I feel…” He searched for the word; the fingers of his right hand moved as if he were blind and groping for it. “Diminished. Ashamed. Because I watched all that killing, and when it was over, do you know what I wanted to do? I wanted to kill someone. Anyone. It seemed the only possible reaction to what I’d seen.”
Reviewed at:
Reading Rants!
Stories Are Light (warning: contains detailed spoilers)



  1. Like you, I'm waiting for the Carnegie announcement. As an ex- Children's Literature lecturer this is always a big day. I loved 'Tamar' but I do think it's a shame that in recent years the award has rather got hi-jack by books for teenagers. I'd like to see some of the books written for younger children coming to the fore again.

  2. Ha! See? Reading the end makes reading the rest of the book better! Everyone must realize this great truth eventually! I am reading Monsters of Men right now (I love that the Spackle says "my one in particular"), and reading the end (before the middle) filled me with joy. Which I need!

  3. looks good ,I read his keeper mal peet and enjoyed it ,all the best stu

  4. This sounds great. I am loving all these WW2 era books that you are reviewing that bring to light so many social aspects that get missed in history books. I really need to track down some of them.

  5. This sounds great. I'm particularly interested in the idea that what one's grandparents experienced during the second world war will undoubtedly have an effect on the emotional make up of those who follow them.

    It makes sense really.

  6. This does sound good - the social aspects of the war interest me far more than the political or military aspects do.

  7. My son and I both are interested in reading this one. I have read other favorable reviews and I'm sure this will be a great read!

  8. While I don't think this is for me, I absolutely love ambiguous endings, especially for complex novels.

  9. I think I've only read one Carnagie Winner, Postcards From No Man's Land by Aidan Chambers which was actually really good.

    Tamar has been on my radar quite a bit, because I too enjoy learning more about the social aspect of WWII than the military history.

  10. I love the line: "It's a very private thing, losing your mind." That alone could make me read the book.

  11. Okay, I don't think I've ever even heard of this one before. And it sounds wonderful. Really wonderful. And since I'm sitting in the library right now, I think I'm off to see if they've got it...

  12. It's good to hear that even though you knew a little of what was going to happen, it didn't ruin the book for you. I just finished a book that sounds remarkably similar to this one, called Amandine. It deals with many of the same social and mental issues as well as being about the occupation during WWII. This sounds like it would make a great companion read to it, so I will be looking for it. Great review! I am so glad you liked it and that it gave you so much to consider!!

  13. I loved this one, too, and would like to read his others. Reading the Carnegie Medal winners sounds like an interesting personal challenge.

  14. I'm so ashamed! The only Carnegie medal I've ever read was The Borrowers by Mary Norton. This sounds like a truly amazing story though.

  15. I'll be honest... at the beginning of your review I thought, "Eh, this one probably isn't for me."

    But things changed at this point: "It’s rather a novel in which the truth gradually changes shape and redefines itself."

    Crap. The list grows...

  16. I very rarely want to read anything related to war or military history, but this sounds like there's a lot of social focus. I'll keep it in mind if for the rare moments when I get in the mood for this sort of book. It sounds beautifully written.

  17. I really stories that take place during WWII as well. The Diary of Anne Frank is one of my favorites.

    Thanks for the review this sounds fantastic.

  18. This book is new to me, but it sounds extremely interesting! I don't read many books about the war, but Tamar makes me really want to.

  19. This looks good. I don't usually read the espionage/thriller kind of books, but I like that ones that show social aspects of living in wartime. I've actually read a YA book about the Dutch resistance, about a teen who got involved in sabotage. It's called Bright Candles, but I can't recall the author now.

  20. Ooh I have this one. My friend gave it to me a while back. I might have to move it up the pile now.

  21. This sounds really interesting. I always think the effect that war has on generations in a family is something that isn't written about enough.

  22. An interesting book. I haven't seen it around in the Netherlands (where I live) so I wonder if it's in the children's book section (where I don't often look).

    My mother was a teenager during WWII in the Netherlands and she doesn't like to talk about it much.

  23. I like the sound of this book, Nymeth. I like books about ww2 and think it's so important that it stays in the public eye.

    I have done the same thing as you by accident too - seen something at the end that has changed the book for me. Grrrr.

  24. If the Crnegie was fan voted it would be very hard to call as there are so many big name, always delivering authors in it, but because I've read nothing but 'Nation' so far I will pick that as my winner (so want to read all the books on the list though).

    Tamar sounds excellent and I liked your observations that it's hard to see how anyone who has been througha war can be expected to go back to a normal life.

  25. Study Window: I definitely see your point, as much as I love YA. Maybe having two awards, like the US have the Printz and the Newbery, would be worth it.

    Jenny: I'm starting to think you're on to something :P And isn't "one in particular" the best expressions ever? Later on he uses it to do something BRILLIANT. Hearts, Patrick Ness. Hearts.

    Stu: Keeper and Exposure both sound excellent too. I need to get my hands on them.

    Amy: It's funny how you can think you know a time period well, and then it turns out that there's so much that has been neglected.

    Tea Lady: It does, doesn't it? And it's fascinating to read about.

    Kathy: Yes, same here. I do care about the political and military aspects, but only because of how they affect real people.

    Staci: I hope you both enjoy it!

    Clare: So do I! I think that an author who allows his or her readers to make up their own minds shows some real respect for them, and I appreciate that.

    April: I need to get my hands on that one! It sounds excellent. Also, you read A Gathering Light, right? That's a Carnegie winner too!

    Trisha: That's SUCH a great passage, isn't it? All the parts about Tamar's grandmother's dementia made me cry :\

    Debi: I hope you found it! :)

    Zibilee: I'm going to have to look for Amandine! Thank you for the recommendation :)

  26. Hi there. I loved this book and reviewed it here http://sandyfussell.blogspot.com/2009/05/dinner-with-mal-peet-m-t-andersen.html with a bit of a digression about the dinner I attended to hear Mal Peet and M T Andersen speak when they came to Australia last year.

  27. I've had my eye on this book since the WWII challenge last year, and now I must go reserve a copy at the library. I haven't read about the Dutch famine during the war, so I'm definitely intrigued.

    I'll get this linked on War Through the Generations soon. Thanks for another great review!

  28. Ooh, I don't know if I have read a Carnegie medal-winning book for a very long time! I think I have read more Newberry medal winners than Carnegie medals. I think I would enjoy this one, though generally I don't like books with parallel storylines.

  29. Gavin: I've been trying to read through the list of winners for about a year now, and so far it's been a wonderful experience!

    Jen: I haven't read The Borrowers yet, but it's definitely on my list!

    Elisabeth: Sorry to have added to it :P

    Amanda: I did love the writing, yes :)

    Brenna: It's one of mine too!

    Emidy: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to give it a go :)

    Jeane: It sounds like I should look up Bright Candles!

    Vivienne, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Kathleen: I absolutely agree. But there seem to be more books about that around these days.

    Leeswammes: Yes, it'd probably be in the children's or YA section.

    Boof: I was really glad my little accident didn't ruin the book for me! I'd have been so sad if it had :\

    Jodie: That accursed Neil Gaiman stole the medal from Sir Terry ;) But given that he's my favourite author, I can't resent him for long :P

    Sandy Fussell: Thank you for your link! The dinner sounds absolutely wonderful.

    Anna: Thank you for linking to me! You do such a great job with the site :)

    Aarti: For me it's the opposite; I've read more Carnegies - but I do tend to like them both. It's funny how this year the winner is the same for the first time ever.

  30. By far......100%......THE BEST book I have EVER read! I love it so much, this is my 4th time reading it in 1.5 years :)

  31. I really like this book! Do you know if there are any other books like this?

  32. Anon, I'd recommend Aidan Chambers' Postcards from No Man's Land to fans of Tamar.


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