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Last Saturday I found myself paging through all the Kindle novel samples I’ve accumulated, looking for some lighthearted speculative fiction, having just finished an exhausting work week.  I wanted to wind down with something that wouldn’t require much thought and would simply keep me entertained for a couple of hours. I misremembered Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal by Mal Peet as exactly such a novel, something I had downloaded to read as part of Baffled Books’ Speculative Fiction Challenge, when in actuality, I had downloaded it because it won the Carnegie Medal in 2005 and therefore fit perfectly for Gathering Books’ Award Winning Books Challenge. The sample, even though clearly not indicative of a piece of speculative fiction, gripped me immediately and I was barely able to put the thing down to go to bed a few hours later.

In a nutshell, Tamar tells the story of two characters, both named Tamar.  The first is a spy, stationed for most of the book in Holland at the very end of WWII, 1944-1945, during a period known as the Hunger Winter.  Tamar is accompanied by his wireless operator, Dart and his love interest, the woman whose farm he is hiding at, and who gave him sanctuary a year before on his first mission into the area, when they fell in love. The second Tamar is a teenage girl, living in 1995 in England. She is facing the loss of her grandfather, a grandmother already lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s or some such, and a father who has simply disappeared. After her grandfather dies and leaves her a box of mysterious mementoes she sets out on a journey to find something, anything, to hold onto.

One of the things that really struck me immediately, and stayed with me as I was reading, was the level of realism that Peet imbued into the story.  We don’t just hear about the situation being desperate and terrifying, we are told about the cyanide pills, and experience the instructions that Tamar and Dart receive on how to ingest them in the most efficacious manner possible.  We learn about the sheets of silk that hold the different codes that will be used in sequence, and why that silk is being used, because of all the simple ways it can be destroyed quickly so as to be kept out of enemy hands.

And that’s why we’re fighting, remember? We’re fighting for the right to choose not to be evil.

~Marijke, young Tamar’s grandmother, Tamar-the-spy’s lover

If you think about the audience for a YA historical fiction novel set in WWII, you’re thinking about kids for whom that war, and the lives that it touched have always been nothing but stories. Peet does an amazing job of putting his audience into the shoes of these two spies and making you really feel every emotion they experience. And it’s not just the constant fear and desperation. Most especially through the characterization of Dart we see the boredom that grows between the frantic moments of receiving and sending his messages, as well as the results of his growing dependence on amphetamines, and what they do to how he views and interacts with his world.

One of the other elements that I really liked, and which I think added to the realism of the piece, was that we weren’t presented with a totality of black and white.  It wasn’t just Tamar and Dart = good and Nazis = bad. We see infighting among the various resistance factions in Holland at the time, as well as some very true to life decision-making by both Tamar and Dart that gives each a significant depth of character.

So what didn’t I like?  Well, I’ve kind of on purpose not gone as deeply into my description of the modern portion of the plot, partially to preserve the mystery, and partially because I just didn’t like it as well. The young Tamar just doesn’t come alive for me until the very end, and her partner in crime never does, which is a shame, because I think Peet had a real opportunity there to explore the emotional repercussions of the past being dredged up, and I feel like he kind of dropped the ball. That said, the way that all the elements of the past are brought to light and unravelled is masterful in its quietness.  This isn’t a loud story, even though it encompasses one of the loudest and most dramatic parts of modern human history, and I appreciate how well the subdued and somber mood carried throughout the novel.

TL/DR: I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone, even those who don’t typically enjoy historical fiction.  I’m usually one of those people who wrinkles her nose at the mention of that and similar genres, but the humanity and realism of the characterization and story-telling really made this something that I liked and will happily read again.

The past is a dark house, and we have only torches with dying batteries. It’s probably best not to spend too much time in there in case the rotten floor gives way beneath our feet, like it did for Dad. Like it nearly did for me.

Yoyo said to me recently, “Love and pain, that’s what families are, and they fit together like this” — he slotted the tips of our fingers together — “like cogs.” […] “And what makes these cogs turn is hope, of course.”

~young Tamar