This novel barely scrapes by as Young Adult. I was about to say something really stupid here, like Mal Peet has written a book which is so intelligent that it isn’t mphfhmp…. (Leave me alone! I’m trying to review a book here.)
OK then, it is a really intelligent story and that proves it’s a YA novel, and only what we expect from a writer like Mal. It’s so grown up that it really is a book for younger readers. How’s that?
Life: An Exploded Diagram is about sex and bombs, whilst also managing to be a concise description of life during the twentieth century. Strawberries. Horses. Religion. Art. Politics.
I’m so impressed by how Mal has woven the bits from all over the century into a story this way. He begins by letting Ruth give birth to his narrator Clem back in 1945. Mal then goes back in time, giving the reader some perspective on what kind of life Clem was born into. Then he goes forward quite a long way, only to return to the middle of the last century for most of the book.
Most of the story (I believe) is about the teenage Clem meeting Frankie and falling in love. It’s one long hunt for an opportunity to have sex, which was no easy feat back then. It’s sort of a Cuba crisis Lady Chatterley.
I’m old enough to remember, well not the Cuba crisis as such, because I was too much of an idiot for that, but its aftermath of admiration for J F Kennedy. Mal has either done a tremendous amount of research into what Kennedy and his aides talked about, or else he has made it all up very beautifully indeed. I had no idea about Kennedy’s bowels, for instance.
The story is set in the Norfolk countryside, where Mal grew up. It feels as if he knows everything there is to know about the landscape and its people and their language. It’s fascinating!
You can’t really begin to describe this book (yes, I know I already have). You just need to read it. I hope lots of young readers will want to find out about sex in 1962.