Book review: Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t initially attracted to the book when it came out (2011) because the plot features the Cuban Missile Crisis and I just thought, “boring.” I’ve got a problem with making untrue snap decisions about books.

Clem Ackroyd, our central character, lives with his parents and grandmother in a claustrophobic home too small to accommodate their larger-than-life characters in the bleak Norfolk countryside.

Life takes us from intimate moments in a teenage boy’s life to the world stage and back again with ease.

We’re off to school with Clem and his mate, we’re picking strawberries in the blazing sun of the English countryside, we’re scoping out new places for make out sessions… then we’re in JFK’s war room, part of the Cuban Missile Crisis, flying high about the Arctic avoiding radar, we’re part of 9/11…

I’m almost strictly a reader of contemporary fiction so don’t often find myself in war rooms and Presidential ponderings. These, like the Cuban Missile Crisis seem to be the fodder of the non-fiction set, which is something I’m typically not. However, despite my initial reservations I found myself enjoying the American history and politics enormously. In fact, I would hazard to say I enjoyed that more than the domestic settings I’m usually fonder of.

When I was 16 I was an exchange student to USA (rather sadly it was me who was top of my American Government class) and Life took me back there. I remembered how much I love American history and found the side comments about JFK’s medical history and personal predilections fascinating. In fact, I’d now be really keen to read a biography of JFK so please recommend me one in the comments.

Life is a book about the importance of events – about how it’s the ordinary, everyday, often (long-term) unforgettable lives that we lead that shape us far more than the recorded events of history that time tells us are important.

The juxtaposition of these world stage events with Clem’s everyday life is what makes Life: An Exploded Diagram so special and memorable. Because while world events will be remembered for all time as the events that have shaped and reshaped our world, in the face of personal discovery they’re all just background noise.

What really matters to us as individuals are the events and effects of our own, tiny lives. Village life, our family, plans for a brighter future, a first, true love – all seem so massively effective and important – arguably even more so if you’re a teenager like Clem.

In Life, Clem’s life changes irrevocably when he meets Frankie, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and experiences first love, in all its pain and glory. The first rush of love is thrilling and exciting and even better, clandestine. Anyone who has fallen in love as a teenager (and who didn’t) knows theirs alone is the greatest love story of all time.

Throughout Life the story is told in flashback by Clem and moves from the past of his parents and grandmother to his own teenage years. I found the change of tense and narrative styles as we moved through time thrilling. Each character is so well developed and seems so large and important to the book that it’s hard to believe they don’t really exist.

Although I finished reading Life a good few weeks ago it’s a book I’ve often reflected on since.

It’s a bit like John Lennon wrote in his song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), “Life is what happens to you/ While you’re busy making other plans.”

A five star read.

Don’t just take my word for it though – here’s my friend Courtney’s review.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781844281008

We talk to author Mal Peet ahead of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Mal Peet (pictured below) and his wife Elspeth Graham (who he also writes with) had been enjoying a few days of New Zealand sunshine before the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival kicks off, when I met them in Auckland city to catch up. Mal’s been a guest here before and has plenty of fans of his exciting and absorbing young adult novels, and many are not teenagers. He’s been writing books, many award-winning, for the last ten years, aimed at that youthful audience, but they enjoy a wide readership.

Photo: Justin Mcmanus

I asked Mal about what distinguishes his books as YA, a tricky and much discussed issue.
“I do sound off about this. I get very fed up with people who are more obsessed with categorising books than reading them. There are a lot of bloggy nerds out there who want to advance a rigid definition of what is teen or YA and I just think – to hell with it, it doesn’t matter. I mean I do write, in my opinion, for young adults, but not exclusively. I don’t believe that teenagers exclusively want to read about other teenagers. But there’s a very strong school of thought now, that teenage fiction should be fiction about teenagers. And I simply don’t hold to that view … which I consider entirely reductive, formulaic and silly.”

Is there anywhere you won’t go because your books are aimed at teens?
“No, not in terms of content. I think I do moderate my style somewhat, in that I just try to avoid anything that might be beyond the average well-read teenager’s reading really, so I don’t make a lot of clever literary references, and I don’t presume they know historical stuff and so on, so I either avoid it or I have to work explanation into the text.”

There is a lot of information worked into Peet’s stories, but you hardly notice that you’re learning something new when you’re so caught up with the characters. The most recent novel Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) is based in Norfolk, the countryside of Peet’s own childhood, and there are many elements from his own youth in the story of Clem, a shy boy with a love of drawing, and his rather fumbling romance with the gorgeous Frankie, overshadowed by the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation.

The war itself is also full of strongly drawn characters as Peet melds together quotes taken directly from scripts on record from White House meetings before the Kennedy and Khrushchev governments finally decided not to blow the world to smithereens.

“One of the motives for writing the book was that it seemed to me that it had been almost forgotten. It seems very odd that the nearest we ever looked like we were coming to nuclear annihilation has been sort of tucked away as a footnote.

“28 October marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and thus a great time to read Life, hoping that the knowledge and renewed awareness can help prevent such events happening again, and perhaps asking questions, as Peet does in the postscript of his book, about where all those nuclear weapons are lurking now.”

See Mal Peet at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event ‘In the Shadow of History’ with Sebastian Barry and Jesmyn Ward with chair Paula Morris THIS SATURDAY (Saturday 12 May) 11.30-12.30. Buy your tickets now.

Mal Peet was interviewed for Booksellers NZ by Crissi Blair, editor/publisher/reviewer at Silvertone Ltd.

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406335729