06 June 2010


Undercover agents Tamar and Dart are parachuted into their native Holland by the British during the brutal Hunger Winter of 1944, following the disaster of Operation Market Garden. They are instructed to organize the fragmented Dutch resistance in central Holland to coordinate acts of sabotage against the Nazis and, even more importantly, control the rogue bands of partisans who often provoked severe reprisals upon the civilian population with their anti-Nazi activities. This proves near impossible as deprivation, infighting, and jealousy lead to a shocking act of betrayal, which is only fully revealed fifty years later when an English teenager named Tamar uncovers her relatives' past following a family tragedy.

I came across Mal Peet's award-winning YA novel Tamar one day at work in the library. I was filing away other books when the cover of this one--specifically the parachute on the cover--caught my eye. (As some of you know, my dad and grandfather were both paratroopers, so that automatically made me curious.) Then the tagline that said "Espionage, Passion, Betrayal" caught my eye. Yeehaw! Espionage and Betrayal! Two subjects that have long fascinated me. (Some of you may think my priorities are screwed up . . . ) I once tried to write a spy novel when I was younger. It was quite awful, but I love a realistic spy story--you may gather James Bond doesn't work for me--and that's precisely why I loved this book so much.

Tamar offers one of the most realistic and, as a consequence, harrowing portrayals of espionage I have ever read. Peet does a superb job of bringing alive the boredom, paranoia, and terror that dominated the life of an undercover operative in Nazi-occupied Europe. I adore good historical fiction, so I enjoyed the distinctive historical atmosphere he re-creates in this novel. I also loved the pacing in this novel. Though Tamar is over 400 pages long, I couldn't put this book down! Ironically enough, the descriptions of the partisans' bouts with boredom do not make for boring reading, and there is plenty of action to keep a reader happy. The highlight for me was an ambush on a high-ranking S.S. officer that hardly goes according to plan. I don't want to give too much away, but it reminded me some of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Resistance, and I assumed that was the inspiration. In fact, Peet relied on an actual incident that occurred in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I refuse to give details away, because if you had the name you would google it and that would ruin the suspense. Besides, if you google it and read about the Nazis' payback for this ambush, you're liable to be distraught for awhile . . . )
I also especially enjoyed the characters. The two protagonists--known only by their aliases of Tamar and Dart--are complex characters who are both likable but definitely flawed. I especially liked the way Peet handled the jealousy that eventually leads to the tragic finale. I have always found novels that delved into jealousy fascinating precisely because that is an emotion we all have experienced at one point. No matter how much we may disagree with what characters in works like Othello, A Separate Peace, and The Count of Monte Cristo do when provoked by jealousy, deep down it is something we can all relate to. (Right? Or is it just me? *banishes self to sit with Othello, Iago, Gene, Danglars, and Fernand* I must say, I am a bit nervous in this company. . . ) In much the same way, the envy that rips this resistance group apart is disturbing precisely because it is so easy to understand where both sides are coming from. I sort of guessed what would happen about a third of the way through, but I think that was intentional on Peet's part. It didn't lessen my enjoyment. In fact, it made me keep reading to see if my guess was correct.

I liked this novel very much; however, I did find the modern scenes, in which a girl named Tamar slowly pieces together what happened, less compelling. Not that they were bad, but compared to the WWII scenes, which are so haunting and unique, the common YA subplot of a troubled teen who puzzles out her family's tragic past with the help of a relative's parting gift was just a bit too cliche for me. Tamar the Dutch resistance fighter interested me, because he was a unique character; Tamar the confused teen girl did not interest me very much, only because I have seen a thousand characters like her. Again, it is not that the scenes set in modern times are badly written. It's just they struck me as less compelling, because they lacked the originality of the rest of the novel.

If you like excellent historical fiction or are just looking for an action-packed good read, try Tamar. The historical atmosphere is impeccable, and the story is superbly crafted. I'm glad I picked this one up. :D


Next Time: Maybe some Daphne Du Maurier. Maybe some Dostoevsky.

This Week in Literary History:
31 May 1819: American poet Walt Whitman is born on Long Island, New York. My lit. professor once said that Whitman was not the first American poet, but he was the first distinctly American poet. Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a poetry classic, but I am quite fond of his heartbreaking "Into the Cradle Endlessly Rocking", an autobiographical poem in which Whitman describes the moment he realized he was born to be a poet.

I would also be remiss to not note, seeing as I am reviewing a novel about WWII, that today is the 66th anniversary of the D-Day invasions.


  1. Ooh this sounds like an interesting novel! Thanks for reviewing it, Zella. :D Question: Tamar wasn't Jewish, was she? Because unless I'm mistaken, Tamar is a Jewish name, and it seems like it wouldn't be safe for a Jewish undercover spy.

  2. Sounds like a fun read, espionage and betrayal make for compelling plots. :D
    Perfect date for writing a WWII novel review! This reminded me I haven't picked up a historical fiction book in a while, I rather like the genre.

  3. Scott: You're welcome! I think you'd like this one. Good question! I wondered the same thing, because Tamar is a Jewish name. However, it is also the name of a river in England and since Tamar's handlers were Brits, that's where his alias comes from. Dart is also nicknamed after an English river. :)

    Feathery; If you like historical fiction, I bet you'd enjoy this one! Historical fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres. Hehe I didn't realize how perfect the timing was until I was getting ready to post today. :D

    Thanks to both of you for commenting! :)

  4. This does sound like a good book, Z. I like YA and suspense. And I hope you return soon from your banishment. It sounds to me like you are entirely normal, actually a bit above average. :)

  5. Thanks, Eric! I think you'll enjoy this one, though, as I noted, the modern story line is weaker. But I couldn't put this one down! Peet is a good writer who knows how to spin a good tale. :)

    *peers around* I am ready to return. Iago keeps telling me nasty things about Gene and I have a suspicion Othello is going to stab someone soon. ^^

    Thanks for commenting! :)