“Boredom had not been among the dangers that the SOE had prepared him for. No pompous little officer had stood in front of his class and said, “Right, chaps, today we’re going to learn how to deal with a particularly nasty little situation that secret agents tend to find themselves in: being bored abso-bloody-lutely rigid”.” – Mal Peet, Tamar
This is the book for you if you are looking for an unheroic war story. For all their bravery, men and women living through or fighting in a war are seldom the Hollywood-kind of heroes, and many people on the ‘right side of history’ might be frightful assholes. The Second World War is no different.
In 1944 two Dutchmen, who were trained in Great Britain, land in a rural part of the Netherlands to serve as spies for the Allies and give direction to the Dutch resistance. The young friends have been given English rivers as codenames: Dart and Tamar. They have to deal with opposing factions within the resistance, the danger of discovery, starvation by the Nazis and the severe boredom that comes with their posts. Both men dream of fleeing to safety with the resourceful farmdaughter Marijke.
Many years later, an English girl is called Tamar after her grandfather. Growing up, she knows that her grandparents had something to do with Dutch resistance but not much more. When she is fifteen years old, her grandfather commits suicide and she is left, confused, with a box full of clues. All she can do is follow the course of the river Tamar, with the help of some maps in the box. The book alternates between the story of the girl Tamar’s journey and the history of Dart and Tamar in the wartime Netherlands.
The author is British but as a Dutchwoman, I am impressed by his portrayal of the Netherlands and Dutch history. This novel is clearly well-researched and the Dutch characters feel very credible (don’t ask me what exactly constitutes ‘Dutchness’, though). After writing this book, Mal Peet probably had a better grasp on Dutch topography than I have.
The romance tale in ‘Tamar’ is beautiful and gripping but I was glad the war is more than a cheap dramatic backdrop to this story. Far beyond romantic love, war shapes people’s relationships even decades after it ends, and that’s what this book is about. And likeable or not, there is no way you can spend so much time following these characters through all the tension and uncertainty without feeling connected to them.
Peet’s writing is very detailed and precise, which makes for stressful and sometimes shocking scenes but also very happy, beautiful ones. In the midst of the turmoil Tamar and Dart spend languid hours in Marijke’s kitchen and young Tamar, however anxious she is, at times thoroughly enjoys her first roadtrip. ‘Tamar’ is more than a name, it is the word that connects everyone. It carries the memories of a family, able to evoke reactions young Tamar doesn’t understand until she follows the river to its beginning: her journey’s end.
I would recommend this book to anyone, whether you are interested in history or just looking for a good story. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
Queen Wilhelmina Award: Dutch war history!
Mal Peet, Tamar (London: 2005)