Tamar, written by Mal Peet and winner of the Carnegie Medal, is a dark and subtle tale of love, betrayal, guilt, and (maybe) redemption. It is a powerful mix of historical fiction and personal drama. My main issue, however, is whether Tamar is really a young adult novel.
Tamar goes back and forth between 1944 Nazi-occupied Holland and England in 1995. The 1945 storyline follows three main characters: Marijke, a farm girl living with her grandmother in a rural village in the Netherlands; Dart, a young Dutch-born man working for the British as a radio-operator in aid of the Dutch resistance; and Tamar, Dart’s superior officer whose job it is to unite and oversee the quarrelling factions of the resistance.
In 1995 England, we met another Tamar- a 15-year-old girl named, she has been told, for the Dutch river. After her father suddenly disappears, Tamar lives part-time with her mother, and part-time with her grandparents. Recently, her grandmother, Marijke, has begun losing her memory and behaving oddly. The family decides to move Marijke to a nursing home, and not long after, Tamar’s grandfather commits suicide. After his death, Tamar finds a mysterious box containing old photographs, maps, and silk sheets printed with code letters. It is up to Tamar to figure out what these items mean, what her grandfather was trying to tell her, and how her name fits into this mystery.
Peet does a masterful job of creating a richly textured world and revealing the character’s inner lives little by little. The two stories unfold slowly and the tension builds steadily until the climax nearly 400 pages later. For such a long book, it is hard to put down and the mystery surrounding how these characters end up keeps you turning the pages.
While I would recommend this book to another adult (or a very voracious teen reader who loves historical fiction), I found it hard to understand why it is widely considered a YA novel. Yes, there is a main character who is 15-years-old. You don’t meet her, however, until over 90 pages in!
I suppose Tamar had me questioning just what makes a YA book a YA book. I think it is much more than simply having a teen character. The main themes should speak directly to the “teen experience.” Certainly, this is a wide range of experience. But things like growing up, finding out who you are, defining oneself in light of- or in opposition to- the world at large, etc. are the sorts of things I usually associate with YA fiction.
While 15-year-old Tamar is definitely struggling with who she is and how she fits into the world and her family’s history, her story is more external- she is following physical clues that essentially serve to underscore the heart of Tamar– the love triangle happening back in 1944.
I’d love to hear what others thought of Tamar, and in particular, I’d love to hear any YA reactions. While it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year, I’m going to categorize this one as an adult novel.