October 2011

Love in the nuclear age

By Mal Peet
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Life: An Exploded Diagram, the new novel from award-winning British author Mal Peet, is a reminder that labeling a work as “YA” (young adult) is often, well, arbitrary. Peet may put young people at the center of his fiction, but his work is so spectacular that it can—and should—be savored by readers of all ages.

This far-reaching, ambitious historical novel begins toward the close of World War II on the day Clem Ackroyd is born, after a German pilot flies a plane low over his mother’s house on March 9, 1945. By the time Clem, a good student who wants to go to art school, is a teenager, his father has gone to work for Gerard Mortimer, whose family owns Bratton Manor. Picking strawberries on the Mortimer farm one summer, Clem finds himself attracted to the Mortimer daughter, Frankie, even though, as Clem’s friend Goz puts it, “She Mortimer You Ackroyd.” Clem and Frankie begin meeting secretly. But just as readers might be expecting a traditional Romeo and Juliet crisis to unfold, Peet steps back from his canvas to paint a compelling picture of the historical landscape that envelops the young lovers—in this case, the Cuban missile crisis.

The random violence of war and terrorism threads through this compelling novel; but Peet weaves it in so seamlessly and relentlessly that when the crisis does come for Clem and Frankie, it is unexpected and devastating. It is not until decades later, when chance and violence once again play a part in their lives, that we fully begin to understand the depth of their connection.

If you’d like to give a young person this novel, do yourself a favor: Read it first!

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