When her grandfather dies, Tamar inherits a box containing a series of clues and coded messages. Out of the past, another Tamar emerges, a man involved in the terrifying world of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Holland half a century before. His story is one of passionate love, jealousy, and tragedy set against the daily fear and casual horror of the Second World War — and unraveling it is about to transform Tamar’s life forever.
In the fall of 1944, Tamar and Dart, two Dutch SOE operatives, parachute into Holland. Tamar has the thankless task of organizing the fractured Dutch resistance. Dart is his wireless operator, a job with the average lifespan of three months in Nazi-occupied territory.
In the spring of 1995, Tamar, a fifteen year old girl living in London, is reeling from the possible suicide of her grandfather and a few years before, her father’s disappearance.
It’s difficult to review Tamar without giving away any of the plot twists, one of which I figured out very early in the novel. Even so, the suspense remained high and I wanted to see how the story played out. The parts of the story that dealt with the resistance and life in Nazi-occupied Holland were intense. I was white-knuckled during many of the scenes.
By contrast, Tamar of 1995 was jarring–at first. Tamar is a somewhat prickly first person narrator, although we soon learn she has good reason to be. Her father disappeared a few years ago, her mother works constantly and is remote, and her grandfather’s death may or may not have been a suicide.
As the story progressed, I started to really enjoy the segments in Tamar’s point of view. When Tamar’s distant cousin (emphasis on distant) enters the picture, we get not only his sharp observations but some comic relief. (And for you romantics, the hint of a love story.)
I loved the characterization in the novel. The bits and pieces of character information that surfaced during the novel made it all the more real. From Pieter and Bibi at the Marionette House (who have a secret of their own) to the driver of SS General Hanns Albin Rauter’s car, who wonders if his beautiful Austrian fiancée will still love him now that he’s lost an ear to frostbite on the Eastern front.
Mal Peet worked actual events into the story, such as the ill-fated and accidental attack on Rauter’s car that resulted in the death of more than 250 men and Gestapo prisoners. 116 of those men were executed on the actual site of the ambush.
After witnessing the mass execution, Tamar returns to Marijke, the woman he loves, and they have this conversation:
“… We tell ourselves we’re different from them. That we’re not like the Nazis. But this morning, I watched while they murdered a hundred and sixteen people. So I wanted to kill them. The sickness in those men, those Germans? It’s in me, too.
She said, “Yes, it probably is. And that’s why we’re fighting, remember? We’re fighting for the right to choose not to be evil.”
He pulled his hand free of hers. “I’m not sure. I don’t know if we can be good after all this.”
“I don’t know either, but that’s not what I said.”
This, I think, is one of the essential messages of the novel, one that resonates today.
It’s also why I feel strongly, especially in retrospect, that the segments in 1995 work so well. War doesn’t end with surrender or victory. The repercussions go on, from generation to generation, in ways we see, and in ways we don’t.