Adèle Geras has written more than 90 books for children of all ages and for adults. The paperback of her book Cleopatra is published this month. Here, in her fourth contribution to the Writer's Choice series, Adèle writes about Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram.
Adèle Geras on Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
In the afterword to his novel Life: An Exploded Diagram Mal Peet says: 'Many of the events, characters and settings are - or were – real; but they have been passed through the twisted lens of fiction. As a result, I like to think that they have become true.'
This reminds me of Bob Dylan's 'Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now', which is paradoxical and mysterious but which says something that's as true as a thing can be.
I'm assuming Mal Peet was born in 1946, as the main events of the book take place in the summer and autumn of 1962, which was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was born in 1944 and was 18 that year and can remember the time very well indeed. While Clem Ackroyd, Peet's 16-year-old narrator, was falling in love in North Norfolk, I was at Roedean School in Brighton, about to sit my University Entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge. We, too, were desperately worried about the end of the world. My housemistress, the redoubtable Miss Ratcliffe, assured us that the world would not be ending any time soon, and no, we certainly couldn't relax till our exams were over; and such was her authority that I was comforted and believed her.
I mention this to explain part of the pull I felt towards this novel even before I began to read it. Now that I've finished it, I'd like to urge everyone to get hold of it at once because it's one of the best books I've read for a very long time.
Everyone knows what a 'crossover' book is. Think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Think A Gathering Light. It's generally a book which first appears on a Young Adult list and which adults discover later on. This book, I'd say, works the other way round. I think it's a novel for adults, and a literary one at that, and if older teenagers love it (and there are plenty who will), then that's a bonus. So it's a crossover book going the other way, so to speak.
The 'adultness' has nothing to do with explicit sex or violence. The main narrative line, the story of the relationship between Clem (whose father works for the local big landowner) and his beloved, Frankie (the landowner's daughter), is only one thread in a very complex structure. If Clem's life is an exploded diagram, his story is put together as intricately as a Swiss watch, and one of the chief delights of reading this novel is noticing how skilfully Peet weaves his various plot-strands and his themes together.
As well as Clem and Frankie in 1962, we follow Clem's grandparents and parents through two World Wars. We see Clem now, as a middle-aged man. The narrative thus stretches through most of the 20th century and into the 21st, but the book is economical in the extreme and there's not one redundant detail in any of its 400-odd pages. Then, as though this were not enough, there's an authorial voice, or maybe it's the middle-aged Clem, detailing everything you ever needed to know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having lived through it and not properly known anything about how matters unfolded (I was far too busy reading Calderón and Rimbaud and worrying I might die), I was very grateful for these historical interludes. If there are purists out there who'd ask, 'Why do we need historical essays in the middle of a bildungsroman?' I would simply answer: because they're fascinating and add a whole new dimension to the story, which would be far thinner and poorer without them.
Mal Peet won the Carnegie medal for his excellent novel Tamar and he's written several other vastly entertaining and interesting novels since then. There are some writers - and he's one of them - who achieve their effects in such a natural way, so unfussily and elegantly, that it becomes hard to point to exactly what it is that makes the prose so good. Peet has got a terrific ear for dialogue, and the depiction of his family and the Norfolk neighbours and schoolfriends is so vivid that we can hear them and see them, as though we ourselves have stepped into the pages of the novel and are overhearing what they say. It's a very easy book in which to lose yourself. Even the flawed characters are sympathetic. The descriptions of the countryside, and in particular the chapters which take place during the strawberry-picking season, are very clever. Somehow, without the author going into endless detail, the landscape is there, its contours laid out before you, and you feel the heat and smell of the fruit and are drawn, too, into Clem's helpless love for Frankie and hers for him. We know now how the Cuban Missile Crisis ended but I won't say a word about what happens to the young lovers. The last page left me feeling quite shaken.
There is a map of Norfolk, in very fine detail, printed on the inside of the cover, back and front. You will need a magnifying glass to examine it properly, but these beautiful reproductions are the perfect opening and closing statements for a novel, which, as ever at Walker Books, is a beautifully-designed object and a pleasure to hold in one's hands. I can't recommend it highly enough.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]