09 September 2007


by Mal Peet

Walker Books. Young Adult, Mystery. Paperback rrp $16.95

This book won the 2005 Carnegie Medal (awarded in 2006). So as I sat down to read Tamar I had very high expectations. And the good thing about high expectations, is the reward when they are fulfilled. Tamar is a brilliant novel – the story of two lives, two histories and the tragic effect of war.

When Tamar’s grandfather dies she inherits a small cardboard box. A former wireless operator in the war, William Hyde’s life was full of codes, crosswords and cryptic messages. And that’s what the box contains - the clues to the puzzles in Tamar’s own life. With her cousin Johannes she sets out to solve them.

Towards the end of the Second World War, two young Dutchmen, trained in London, are sent to Holland to aid the resistance. Their code names are Tamar and Dart. Tamar’s role is to co-ordinate the local forces but he is also returning to Marijke, the woman he fell in love with on a previous mission. Dart (William Hyde) is his wireless operator.

Tamar is killed but Dart survives and returns to England with Marijke. They raise a son who, at his father’s request, names his daughter Tamar. Two lives and two histories begin to converge. Later the son inexplicably abandons his family and Tamar spends ever increasing time with her grandparents.

As the story unfolds Tamar discovers her grandfather is not who she thinks he is. His reality distorted by the strain of war and the pressures of a covert operation, Dart murdered his colleague Tamar and married the unsuspecting and already pregnant Marijke. William Hyde despises what Dart did, but he loves his family deeply. When Tamar’s father discovers the deception, he is filled with hate. He wants to kill William but instead walks away.

Now Tamar knows everything. Two lives and two histories have collided with a force strong enough to destroy them all. But with Johannes’ help, Tamar finds it in her heart to forgive what her father never can. She understands what the box means. William is completing the apology he began when he chose Tamar’s name.

I read an interview with Mal Peet where he talked about ‘connectedness, the way that we are all individually shaped by past events, by our family experiences, whether they are secret or not, by our grandparents’ lives’ [1]. This is the crux of Tamar.

Tamar is not an easy read. The plot is complex with many twists and turns, winding across Europe and through time. But this is an engrossing, dramatic and thought provoking narrative. Well worth the concentration it requires. While Tamar is marketed as young adult fiction, the line is very finely drawn. The book will equally appeal to adults.

[1] The full transcript of the UK Chartered Library Institute of Professionals interview can be viewed at (http://www.cilip.org.uk/publications/updatemagazine/archive/archive2006/september/malpeetsep.htm).

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