Even though the cat was slightly underwhelmed by previous Mal Peet work (Tamar), she was lured to Life: An Exploded Diagram by Patrick Ness who blurbed it and called it “so good, you almost want to keep it a secret.” This blurb makes it all the more ironic that Ness’ own A Monster Calls lost to Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram in the first round of this year’s Battle of the Books. Myracle was right in calling that both are just astonishing books, but in the cat’s own personal battle of the books, yes, I do think I would agree with her, because, to quote Lauren Myracle: “Mal Peet? He. Is. Amazing! Shit, man, shit,[…]”. Yeah, I couldn’t get it more eloquent than that either…
Life: An Exploded Diagram actually starts like a family chronicle, but eventually spans 2 oceans and almost 60 years in the life of Clem Ackroyd. Deftly showing how supra-national events like the Cuban Missile Crisis can influence a couple of lusty Norfolk teenagers, it is both cleverly construed and a joy to read. Life initially has an omniscient narrator (who will turn out to be Clem) tell the tale of how in WWII a Nazi pilot was the unfortunate cause of a boy’s premature birth. The reader first thinks it’s Ruth and her mother Win who will be at the center of this novel, but this is actually the narrator’s roundabout way of letting us now that all things happen for a reason, and that reason may both be trivial and earth-shattering. Before we get to 1962 and the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems we have already read an entire book about Clem’s family. There’s both nostalgia and humorous self-awareness here, as Mal Peet is clearly acutely conscious of the rural Norfolk area, both before and during 1962, also introducing us to the Norfolk dialect while he’s at it.
When Clem and Frankie, the only daughter of a wealthy landowner, engage in their lust affair, halfway through the novel, Peet embarks on another tour de force: switching narrative points of view, becoming a fly on the wall during important political and military meetings (Doves and Hawks in JFK’s war room), switching back and forth between Clem & Frankie on the one hand and JFK & Khrushchev on the other hand, all the while explaining about the ifs and hows and whys of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the scare of the Cold War affected the decisions of people thousands of miles away.
At the same time of being better than any history text book ever could be, Life: An Exploded Diagram is also an incredibly warm book about a boy and a girl’s sexual awakening in the 1960s. The romance is the stuff of Shakespeare: poor Clem, rich Frankie, families are not to know… we all know the cliché, but it works so well here, because Mal Peet juxtaposes different sorts of relationship. There is not just the relationship between Clem and Frankie (though it’s obviously at the heart of the novel), there’s also the way that Ruth & George interact (or not), the way that Win thinks about sex. I’m sure many adult readers will also get a kick out of the way Clem describes how he got to know about sex, and how “You Learn Nothing About Sex From Books, Especially If They’re By D. H. Lawrence”. Yes, this was the 1960s in rural England.
Life: An Exploded Diagram is about love and war. The stuff that divides and unifies. It’s about relationships, it’s about community, it’s about history. Life: An Exploded Diagram is a truly epic book: in scope and in language. This makes it all the more banal that apparently so many people want to focus on ‘intended audience’. After reading so many “YA” books, “YA” reviews, “YA” blogs, it still astounds me that people can say, “Yeah, yeah, great book, but it’s not really “YA”, is it?” Err…ok, so how should I read that statement? Is it because books like Life: An Exploded Diagram, or books like Octavian Nothing, or books like The Book Thief, or… are so obviously books with literary ambitions (what a dirty, dirty word) that they fall outside of the scope of “YA”? Color me dumbfounded, because I didn’t realize it was an exclusive club. Anyway, Life: An Exploded Diagram: awesome book! If you like romance, if you like history, if you like language… then get reading now!