I loves me some Mal Peet.
I mean, not the man himself (although I hear he’s lovely company, I haven’t actually been lucky enough to meet him). But the books. Oh, those lovely, complex, really-not-very-YA books. Yum, every last one of them.
But I have this nagging fear that I might be loving on them as an adult reader, and that if I were really wearing my YA hat (it’s black and knitted and has kitty ears, and all my students want it), I might not be so smitten. All of Peet’s books have had very adult narrative voices—Paul Faustino, the reporter who provides the lens through which the soccer stories (Keeper, Penalty, and Exposure) are told, is in fact a bitter, middle-aged man. So, you know, not typical for YA. Tamar is the one maybe exception, and I thought the bits from Tamar’s actually-YA POV were less interesting than the more mature voices from the past.
However, Peet continues to be published as a YA author (bless Candlewick and their willingness to break rules and take risks!). So even if appeal is limited, he’s a contender. (It is probably worth noting at this point that when Sarah and I talk about books that fall into our contender list, we are definitely saying contender in a Brando-in-On the Waterfront voice. Just so you know.)
I’m hoping that Life is the book that proves to be Peet’s breakout book. For starters, it’s got a penis on the cover. Wait, did you think that was a missile? So did I. Then I brought my ARC down to the cafeteria while I was reading. Teenagers are very fast to clue one in about suggestive covers, it turns out.
Life is a complex story. On one level, it’s about a young boy coming of age in rural England in the early 60s, which is the most straightforward aspect of the narrative and a compelling story on its own—working class Clem and wealthy daughter-of-the-lord-of-the-manor Frankie’s passion is a thing of wonder, and the shadow of doom over it makes it a page-turner: you know something is going to go wrong, since adult Clem makes an oblique reference or two, so every happy scene is undercut with a faint sense of impending tragedy. But the wider angle of the story is about something bigger.
Clem is the narrator—an older Clem, looking back on a past long gone. Happily, though, adult Clem is only occasionally heard from directly: chapters in the past use a third person voice and extends the narrative to parts of his life Clem himself can’t remember (his birth scene is a marvel of comedy and pathos, as his fantastically dour and terse grandmother and his flustered, naive mother contend with labor amidst a WWII bomber strike). And Clem the teenager, whose story is the heart of the novel, is a wonderfully vibrant character. He is torn between worlds, and he’s madly passionately in love, and he has a sharp, wry sense of things that punctuates the narrative with humor. As well, the evocation of the past is impressive, and I found myself thinking of A.S. Byatt’s Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, in terms of setting and in terms of sheer literary poise: every word just so, and just right.
Why is this book a contender?
The characters fairly leap off the page, especially Win (the aforementioned grandmother). The carefully chosen language brings the time to place. The narrative structure takes risks and pulls them off: multiple perspectives, including JFK and his cabinet, are used to bring the larger pieces of the story to life. History plays a role in ways that make the thematic scope that much more effective.
And the theme is really conflict: The tension between old ways and new, as embodied in the shift from Frankie’s grandfather’s stewardship of the land—he has harvest festivals, lets widows remain in entailed cottages, and genuinely seems to love his land and his people—to her father’s methods: clearcutting; large, prairie-style fields; mechanization.
Class warfare: Clem’s father is a World War II vet who demands more than a dank medieval cottage and moves his family to one of the council estates that became so prevalent in the 50s, but his desire to be something more means he never actually fits in anywhere, as getting above oneself is a cardinal sin. Clem and his friend Goz spend their adolescence as scholarship boys at an elite public (private to us yanks!) school, where they are called “maggots”; little else is overtly stated, but it’s clear that there was little joy in being a scholarship boy. Clem can’t even speak to Frankie’s father, yet Frankie can casually refer to Clem’s father by first name, because George is just one more person in her father’s employ.
But most of all this is a novel about conflict as it plays out in the world. World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and September 11 all play a part. History repeats, over and over in Peet’s carefully constructed novel, and history is made of the tension between opposing forces, including the push and pull between a boy and a girl who have fallen in love in a time and a place where that just cannot be.
Will it get a nod from the committee? So far, Life has received some starred reviews, but PW said the mix of the big picture political and social history was an “uneasy fit” with the love story. I don’t think anyone can quibble with Peet’s skill for dialogue and characterization, but whether you think the whole hangs together might be a question of personal taste (it worked for me, but what about you?). But since this is my blog, I’m saying yes, I’d nominate this in a heartbeat.
Pub details: Candlewick, October 2011; review from ARC.