Guardian Prize- winning author, Mal Peet won the Carnegie Medal for Tamar and it’s pretty easy to see why. His YA novel is an epic read, spanning fifty years of history and three generations of a complicated family. It’s a big book but I read it in less than twenty four hours because I simply couldn’t put it down. If you like historical sagas with plenty of action, you’ll absolutely love this book. It focuses on Tamar, a young fifteen year old woman who, after her grandfather’s suicide, attempts to unravel his complex past. Peet then uses flashbacks to 1944 to reveal Tamar’s grandfather’s side of the story and introduce the people and events which shaped his life.
It transpires that Tamar’s grandfather was an undercover agent for the allies, operating in the Dutch resistance during the latter part of World War 2. As Tamar discovers more and more about his past, she begins to suspect that he wasn’t the man he purported to be. In normal circumstances she might have asked questions of her grandmother, the women who’d escaped from the Netherlands with her grandfather in 1945. The two of them had spent the remainder of their lives in England, yet never quite managed to shake off the past. However, Tamar’s grandmother has developed Dementia and can’t offer her granddaughter any help in unravelling the fifty year old mystery of who her grandfather really was.
I’ll be very honest. There are only a few chapters of Tamar which deal explicitly with the grandmother’s Dementia. It’s mostly a kind of historical fiction thriller with a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure. It’s a brilliant story, exceptionally well-written and I’m grateful that the inclusion of a Dementia narrative made me pick it up and read it through. The sections which focus on Dementia might be slim but they’re very well-crafted and capture a couple of aspects of the illness I haven’t seen explored in many novels so far. Marijke (the grandmother), is a Dutch speaker who learns English late in life, “her English had never been perfect like Grandad’s. She’d often search for the word for something, clicking her fingers impatiently, then give up and use the Dutch.” As her Dementia develops Marijke loses her English and defaults back to her native Dutch. No one in the care home she lives in understands her. They do, “what English people do when they speak to foreigners: talk slowly and loudly in English, and mime.”
I’ve not seen this concept of defaulting to a primary language included in any Dementia narrative I’ve read so far, though I’ve witnessed it a few times in community arts practice when working with people living with Dementia who’d spoken Irish or another language before they learnt English. I also noted with interest Marijke’s attempts to hide food from her carers; a throwback to her youth, when she’d hidden food from the Nazi’s who’s overran their neighbourhood. This is another practice I’ve witnessed amidst people living with Dementia.
Peet’s description of Marijke’s Dementia is uncannily accurate and well-observed. The loving and gentle descriptions of how Tamar’s grandfather enters into his wife’s confusion as a means of reassuring her, are worth the read alone. This is why I’m including Tamar in my collection of Dementia narratives. There are only a few chapters featuring the older version of Marijke but they’re substantial enough to make this novel an essential inclusion, not to mention, a fantastic read.
Tamar was published by Walker Books in 2005