I find that the best way to tell if a work of historical fiction is effective is if, after reading the novel, I wind up doing a bit of research on the computer to try and corroborate facts from the book. If the story can weave history and fiction together that well, chances are that aside from being a good piece of historical fiction it is also a good book in general. Such is the case with Mal Peet‘s latest novel targeted at young adults (though, as usual, this distinction is really a moot point–more on that later).
I don’t usually put much stock in subtitles to books. However, with this book, I have to admit that the subtitle really tells you everything you need to know. Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal (2007) really is just that. In other words, it’s an exciting and suspenseful read with quite a few mysterious twists thrown in along the way (to be fair I should point out that I had guessed one of the major twists about thirty pages in, but that only made me want to read faster to see if I was right and, perhaps, made the ending slightly less shocking–you’ll have to see for yourself though).
Tamar is actually two stories. What I am going to call the main story (because it takes up more of the novel) occurs between 1944 and 1945 first in England and later (and mostly) in Holland. World War II is well under way, but as time passes, it becomes clear that the Nazis will not win. The main question, then, becomes whether the Germans will have the chance to leave their occupied countries behind intact or in a state of burning rubble. In order to prevent the latter, England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE)–a covert military group–have trained and dispatched operatives to go undercover in the Netherlands and undermine the German authority. These operatives, as far as the government are concerned, have no names being known only by an alias. The two SOE operatives at the center of Tamar are named for rivers in England: Tamar and Dart. Working from in Holland, Tamar’s job is to consolidate the resistance movement into a more coherent group. Dart accompanies Tamar as his wireless operator. Many other memorable, and important, characters make appearances here. The last of the main characters are rounded out with Marijke, a young woman who lives with her grandmother on the farm Tamar will call his home while undercover.
The other, smaller, part of the story is set in England. The year is 1995 and the narrator is a fifteen-year-old girl named Tamar–the granddaughter of one of the resistance fighters. Tamar’s life seems to be falling into chaos. Her father has disappeared, her grandmother Marijke is ill, and her grandfather William Hyde is dead. Inheriting a mysterious box from her grandfather inspires Tamar to follow his clues to understand his death and, although she doesn’t know it yet, to uncover one of her family’s oldest secrets as well.
I really liked this book. The story is a real page turner but at the same time Peet also offers a very clear examination of the human condition. World War II is a huge event for, basically, everyone. But as time passes, the immediacy of the War also seems to diminish. One of the great things about Peet’s writing is how eloquently he conveys the fear these men and women felt during the War–even as they chose to put their lives at risk to fight for what they thought was right. Nothing is black and white in this novel, even as characters make mistakes and stumble down their roads paved with good intentions, Peets offers them a chance for redemption and, maybe more importantly, forgiveness. That is why, I think, the Carnegie Medal committee gave Tamar its award and, write that the book “ultimately offers a sense of optimism.”
By comparison, the 1995 sections fall flat. These parts of the novel, serve as a nice counterpoint to the novel, but don’t really feel vital until the end. Similarly, Tamar (the girl) seems rather less likable than her 1944 counterpart (or Dart or Marijke) until the very end of the novel where she proves herself to be a strong, smart young woman.
So, the book is fantastic and you should read it. But now we come to a cataloging issues. This book was first recommended to me by “Amy” a young adult librarian with excellent taste who said the cover didn’t do justice to the exciting writing found within (the cover has actually grown on me). Anyway, the book was given to me by a YA librarian, I saw it shelved as a YA book. Then my other friend “Lea” (a children’s librarian) read it and told me she was having doubts about it being a bonafide YA novel. Having read the book, Lea’s review, and having talked briefly with Amy. I’ve concluded that it is a YA book although I’m uncomfortable making that distinction because so often people think that means it isn’t also an adult book (this one is).
There are a lot of things that make a book fit into the broad YA genre. In a general way it can mean having a teen character, which Tamar does, although as Lea points out in her review–not a teen with a very large role in the narrative. There are two other reasons to classify a book as a YA: it’s a book teens will enjoy reading and it’s a book that teens should read in that it speaks to their own experiences. As to being a good read, I hope I already made a case for that but I will add the caveat that this is a thick book and will take some time to get through with its smaller print and 400 some odd pages.
Now the only question is does Tamar speak to the teen experience. In one sense it doesn’t. Although the WWII characters are very young, I don’t think any of them are actually teens. And honestly age never becomes relevant in that part of the book anyway. But on the other hand it does because there is a lot to be learned (about forgiveness among other things) from the story and the characters and who better to learn than teens?
Possible Pairings: Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Hitler’s Canary Sandi Toksvig, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak