rating: 3 of 5 stars
Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land and Mal Peet’s Tamar are a lesson in how two books can seem to have exactly the same plot, but each can manage to be completely individual.
Similarities: each story is told from two points of view, one a modern British teenager and the other a young adult in the Netherlands towards the end of the second world war. In each modern narrative, the teen (a boy in Postcards, a girl in Tamar) is on a journey to learn more about their grandfathers. In each story, there is a grandfather who was a paratrooper dropped into the Netherlands, taken in by a Dutch family, and who fell in love with a Dutch girl during the war.
Each book ties these two storylines together in different ways – they sound like cookie-cutter stories when you sum up the plot like this, but they don’t feel repetitive or derivative (they were published a few years apart). Another similarity emerges as you get deeper into the plots. I read Tamar first, although it was published second, and the other similarities led me to predict a certain something in Postcards, although it would probably be easy to predict just from clues in the story. I don’t want to give it away, but these twists involve family secrets and questions of why we keep secrets and why we tell them.
Differences: the big one is mood. Tamar is subtitled “a novel of espionage, passion and betrayal,” and although the modern part of the story is definitely crucial, and helps to put the historical section in context, the real heart of the story is the WWII storyline. And it is a story of espionage, but as the subtitle suggests, just as much of the suspense of the story comes from the complicated war-time romantic entanglements. The characters are still incredibly vivid in my mind, in all their flawed, heart-breaking complexity, and a year later I can picture some of the scenes with an almost cinematic quality, which is very unlike me. In fact, I’m just looking for an excuse to reread it.
In Postcards from No Man’s Land, the historical story takes second place to the story of a seventeen year old boy traveling to the Netherlands for the anniversary of the battle in which his grandfather fought, and to meet the family who helped him when he was injured. The grandfather’s story unfolds through the remembrances of an elderly Dutch woman, but it’s a much simpler story than that of the grandfather in Tamar, despite some key similarities. It doesn’t have the same suspense, and the twist lacks the punch of Tamar‘s. Instead, the modern story is much more developed and holds all the delightfully angsty characters, which makes this feel like much more of a coming of age story. Jacob is confronting all kinds of issues – assisted suicide, his sexuality, the keeping and telling of secrets – while traveling in a foreign city. While the story did a great job of capturing that feeling of being an outsider in a country, I never really clicked with the characters – they were always just out of my reach.
Strangely enough, both books won the Carnegie Medal (Postcards also won the Printz). Tamar is my favorite of the two, although I don’t have anything against Postcards – its characters just didn’t didn’t hook me as much, and I can’t really see myself enthusiastically recommending it like I would Tamar.
Here’s what I had to say about Tamar last year:
rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tamar is an excellent example of why historical fiction is fabulous – it shows you the everyday terrors of espionage and everyday life in the Netherlands during WWII, makes you hate and love and pity characters all at once, and shows how history plays out with following generations. Technically YA, there are enough adult characters in this story to make it a good cross-over. The content – and intensity – make it better suited to high school students and adults than to a younger audience. While I guessed one of the plot twists about halfway through, not knowing how it would happen put me on edge until it played out. I still feel tense just thinking about it.