Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tamar: Appearance vs Reality

Tamar by Mal Peet
4Q 2P    S

I usually try to do an overview of a book and then write about my impressions. But 1) I read this book several weeks ago and details are starting to fade, 2) what I started to write was dull, and 3) cutting to the chase (well, as much as I ever do!) feels right.

When I finally got my hands on Tamar, I only had three days to read it and Dreamquake, because I was trying to finish them in time to cast a vote for the JHunt Award. They're both over 400 pages, and I wondered how I could possibly do it. But Tamar was compulsively readable. How could I not get wrapped up in the story of two young men working with the Dutch Resistance in service to the British Army? How could I not get invested in a love triangle between those two men and the Dutch woman they both secretly love? How could my stomach not tie up in knots at the danger these three faced? The tension of these situations kept me riveted as I read.

Tamar's assignment is to gather the various factions of the Dutch Resistance and get them to work together under one leader with one common goal. Dart is his radio man. Tamar has the advantage of living in a farmhouse with his lover and her grandmother. Dart has a less cozy cover story, posing as a doctor in a local psychiatric hospital. Peet is a master of building and relieving tension. While it's obvious that anyone working in the Resistance must have led a life of constant stress and fear, I had no idea how nerve wracking it was to be a radioman in particular, or about how many of them became dependent on pharmaceuticals as a result of having to deal with long stretches of tedium interrupted by minutes of sheer terror. Just reading about Dart's first attempt to get past the Nazi soldiers guarding the gates into town had my heart racing along with his. My stomach was in knots later in the story when the moment he's feared for so long actually arrives. By comparison, Tamar seems to have it good. Networking and diplomacy aren't the beacons for the Nazis that turning on a radio signal is, so although he must be careful, his chances of being caught by the Nazis while doing his job are not as high as they are for Dart. And he has Marijke, his lover, to turn to. So when the story turns to them, we get a different view of Resistance work. We see the methodical, longterm planning and experience the frustration of trying to bind together people who don't want to be melded into one. We also see more of the privations that people in occupied territories faced. But we also get a love story. This is an adult love affair, told from an adult perspective. Having been separated once before, Tamar and Marijke cherish each other all the more. But they must be circumspect about their love. To the outside world, Tamar must appear to be no more than a laborer for the family. Tamar also fears that their partnership would be weakened if Dart learns about his love for Marijke. So this is one more secret for him to hide on top of all the others they must keep.

The secrets and the stress that we witness in the WWII sequences come home with a vengeance almost fifty years later, starting with Tamar's suicide. Before he jumps naked from his balcony, he leaves something behind for his granddaughter, also named Tamar. It is a box, one that she refuses to open for months afterward. When she finally does open it, it turns out to be a Pandora's box of sorts - all sorts of secrets come out as a result.

I've heard some complaints that the 1995 sections of the book are less compelling than those that take place during the war, and I can't disagree. They are slower, and the romance angle of it didn't work for me. But I also felt that they gave the book more context and more richness. This is a story that demands that some insight into how actions and decisions of the past impact the future.

Tamar is very much about
what seems to be isn't always what is, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that there's even debate about who this book is written for and who it will appeal to. Tamar tells two stories. The one that is most compelling and which takes up the majority of the book does not feature a teenage character. Because YA literature by most definitions must feature a teenage character in an integral role, some are questioning whether this is adult fiction or YA fiction. Good question. I think this is a book that has appeal for both adults and teens, and I think it would be very interesting to hear the discussion if a group of adults and teens read the book and got together to share their thoughts on it. But it's also fair to say that this is probably not a book that is going to be widely and hugely popular among teens. It's a niche book. Teens who like to read books about other teens and don't like historical fiction may not be able to relate to Tamar-the-younger enough to find this book appealing. But teens who like war and espionage stories, romance intertwined with danger, and stories that take their time in the telling are going to relish the time they spend with it.

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