At its core, Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet is a love story set in the 1960s, between a working class boy and the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and their need to keep their relationship a secret. But it is also so much more than that. The book spans many years, beginning with the end of the Second World War and ending almost at the present day. Not only do we learn about Clem and Frankie’s relationship, but we’re told about his mother and father’s, and his grandparents, how they all met against a backdrop of world wars, and Clem’s own birth story is a delight.
War and the fear of destruction is very much central to the story. The main part of the love story is set in 1962 during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having it hanging over their heads would have been one thing, but Peet gives us more, taking us into the discussions between Kennedy and his advisers, back to the beginning of the conflict, to little scenes that had a big impact on the world.
The writing in this book is just wonderful. It’s my favourite kind, and so I should be able to describe it better, but I don’t know if I can. The language is beautiful and yet not too convoluted. It sucks you in immediately with its storytelling and imagination. It gives you such a clear picture of the time it’s describing; I could see and feel everything. It’s told in such a way that, while being narrated by Clem, he’s given almost god-like powers, knowing things he couldn’t know and so filling in the gaps as he sees fit, all with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. But you can also feel sadness coming through.
As the story went on though I did find myself enjoying it less. I found the history lessons in the book to be both immensely interesting and frustrating at the same time. It began to feel like two stories had been pushed together, rather than them complementing each other. I think Peet has some very important things to say about nuclear weapons, and chose to say them through fiction, but it did take away from the main story, for me anyway. It began to feel a little heavy handed, and a little preachy. Yes, nuclear weapons and the mad men who wield them are bad. I don’t think I’m the person you need to convince about this. I just wanted Clem and Frankie’s story, without so many interruptions. I was invested, and then I kept being taken out of it.
I was also disappointed by the ending, which felt incredibly abrupt. Again, I think this was done on purpose, but I was left wanting more, just something nearer to closure. I think bookending the story as he does is incredibly clever and it is affecting, and it is true to the themes running through, but it didn’t live up to the expectations I had when I started it. And I’m not really sure why it’s billed as a Young Adult book, as it seems much more general fiction to me, and I think it would be enjoyable to most ages.
Those niggles aside, this is a very lovely, brilliantly written book.
Thank you so much for that Carrie!