‘Life: an exploded diagram’ by Mal Peet
‘Life: an exploded diagram’ by Mal Peet is a historical fiction novel set mostly in Norfolk around the events of the cold war. The storyline follows the forbidden relationship of the daughter of a wealthy landowner and a working class boy. The novel weaves around events of historical significance and ones of significance to Clem: his birth is started because of a Nazi plane, he loses his virginity at the peak of the cold war, and he is propositioned about a major lifestyle change by Frankie moments before the bombing of the twin towers. The novel focuses on comparing these events, studying the way they are connected and why.
The chapters showing the progression of Clem’s life are interspersed with confrontational chapters portraying the harsh reality of the cold war. These were written in third person in such a way that I felt I was looking into JFK’s office or the Soviet submarine. I found that having these written like this helped me see them in a objective way, which is, I think, what Mal Peet was trying to do. It made events seem somehow more real, and as a consequence more unsettling as I began to fully understand what the consequences of the cold war could have been. The description of two Japanese cities after being bombed is one example of such a scene “Strangely, Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked grey and frozen, as though they’d been scoured by some awful polar wind. Actually, they were purged by a fire so intense that their inhabitants were vaporized by it. Their last breaths set fire to their lungs as their eyeballs melted.” As well as the following passage describing the way a mother holding her child is blasted into nonexistence within seconds. I found these vivid descriptions so much more disturbing than statistics and the way they are so removed and cool adds to that. The third person also allowed Peet to ‘annotate’ these chapters with insights and comments of his own that contributed both to my understanding and enjoyment as a reader as many of these were his opinions and/or humourous comments. The humour in these is very sardonic and often subtle, examples of this are “The humourous Americans called it (an atom bomb) “Little Boy”” and “I can’t resist including the following mad dialogue from the secret tapes. It could be part of a script for a TV comedy. The End of the World Show, or something like that.”. I thought that the almost mocking tone some of these passages took to people like JFK was actually valuable because it compensated for the way we as a society view people in positions of power as being untouchable. For me the mocking tone brought the famous political figures down from their metaphorical pedastals which made them, and their failings, seem human. In turn, this new-found humanity given to them made it seem all the more ridiculous that they held the future of the world in their hands. This relates to wider society in that it is important to always question authority, because the people in charge are human too, no matter how much we might make them out to be more. These men in the USA and the Soviet Union could quite literally have blasted the world into ashes and yet the ordinary people like Clem and Frankie are scared of this outcome, and quite rightly so, yet they never really query the choices (or, indeed the sanity) of the men with that power. I think that questioning governments and leadership is vital for the leadership to run healthily. I think that this happens a lot more in the modern day than it did 50 years ago because then, especially at times of discordance between nations, it was seen as very unpatriotic to doubt the people in charge. While this is still somewhat the case in democracies, in some countries there are laws against disagreeing aloud with the government because of the power it has.
The way that Clem’s story wove through the history was also a major part of the book. It was very much focused on cause and effect,…