I was one of the judges in the year that Mal Peet was awarded the Branford Boase Prize for his first novel, Keeper, and it has been no surprise to me that the immense promise represented by that novel has already been amply augmented by subsequent work [Tamar, in particular, was an exceptionally fine book].
Life: An Exploded Diagram begins as if it is going to be a bildungsroman in the grand European tradition. The main character’s family heritage is described in loving detail, so that the reader knows the mother, the father, and indeed the grandmother as vividly as they grow to know Clem.
Because the book is told in the first person, it also reads as a memoir recounted in retrospect so that all the episodes, particularly as Clem grows older and falls in love, have a veneer akin to The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.
The rural and period evocation created by Peet’s impeccable writing is hugely impressive. It is a pageturner of a novel, not by virtue of its narrative pace – it is told slowly – but because the reader is made to feel a sense of place and character so very vividly.
I had a problem with it, however, which it would be wrong to let my admiration for Peet in general and this book in particular gloss over.
The bildungsroman, coming-of-age tone of the book changes abruptly and unexpectedly at the end of Part One. Part Two is titled, appropriately ‘Blowing Things Apart’. The beautifully evoked memoir is suddenly suborninated to pages and pages of potted history about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I personally found this part of the book heavy-handed to the point of doing something I had not done in the book thus far, and can’t remember doing with one of Peet’s books before – skip-reading. These days if I start skip-reading a novel I tend to give up on it altogether. Let me make it clear, I came nowhere near feeling that about this book.
The same political crisis underpins one of David Almond’s recent novels. There the action is adumbrated but not swamped by the political perspective. But Almond and Peet are very different writers, and for most reviewers of this book the space given over to political history has not been an issue. I wonder what young readers, coming to the Cuban Missile Crisis for the first time, will make of it. My worry would be that they, like me, will be tempted to just skimread those reported conversations between generals and politicians at the risk of diluting what is likely to have been a complete immersion in the book to that point.
The book also suffers somewhat to my mind by using material which is, by Peet’s own admission, autobiographical and, in order to maintain the fiction, having to put it all in the voice of an imagined character. Whilst I get a very vivid picture of Clem as a young boy and then as a teenager in love (I feel as if I am definitely seeing Peet as he was himself when young) I do not get any real sense of Clem the freelancing, middle-aged, living-in-America illustrator in whose words the novel purports to be told.