Review Blog

Oct 20 2011

Life: An exploded diagram by Mal Peet

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Walker Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781844281008.
(Age: 16 +) Highly recommended. Whilst this novel provides an amazing reading experience, it is certainly unlike most YA fiction, in structure, in focus and in narrative voice. The novel opens with an almost comical bombing in a country English village during World War 2. And if this is an unconventional YA setting so too is the narrative voice, which deftly (and frequently) changes from third to first person. Sometimes we learn of events from the past as they unfold and sometimes we look at them through the lens of the now grown-up Clem, who lives in New York, many miles away from his rural English roots and that bombing raid which heralded his birth.
The first third of the novel actually explores the lives of Clem's parents (again, an unusual focus for a YA novel) but when Clem reaches puberty, the spotlight once again falls upon him. As a teenager, Clem (a working class, scholarship boy) falls in love with the wild but beautiful Frankie, daughter of the local landlord. Their love slowly blossoms, until the looming threat of the Cuban missile crisis impels their relationship forward with dramatic and unexpected consequences. Gradually, the true meaning of the novel's title becomes clear, as Clem's life is quite literally shaped by explosive events.
A story which began in wartime England and developed under a nuclear cloud ends, shockingly and poignantly, in the modern world of terrorism. Adult readers, who remember the Cuban crisis and D.H. Lawrence novels, are sure to fall in love with this book for the political intrigue, the rural setting and the stinging irony that enmeshes the story. Indeed, some may consider this to be an adult novel for it makes no concession to teen readers, with its ambling pace and switching narrative voice. But this is exactly why teenagers should be encouraged to read this brilliant book; apart from the sheer mastery with which the story is written, they will be well rewarded with thought provoking ideas about war, love and life.
Highly recommended.
Deborah Marshall

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