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Life: An Exploded Diagram

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.

Beautiful stuff.

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.

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. ARGH. Another title I haven’t read yet. I know what I’ll be doing over the weekend.

  2. Tamar reminded me of middling Ken Follett but I love this new book. We starred it at the Horn Book even though we had questions about whether it was a YA book at all.

  3. Karyn Silverman says:

    Roger, although I suspect you’ll hate this response: LOL. I am curious how the Cuban Missile Crisis stuff will play with teens (although that has no bearing here), but it is one of the topics that my 10th graders choose year after year for their research projects so I am hoping Cuban Missile Crisis + young love and lust = appeal.

  4. I haven’t finished it yet, so will reserve my thoughts on the text.

    But all week I’ve been looking at that dreary dustjacket and wondering how they expected it to draw teen readers.

    Then Karyn mentioned the “young love and lust” element and I think I finally figured out the subconscious appeal of that dj.

  5. giggling at Peter’s observation

  6. Sam Bloom says:

    Hi – I’m Sam, and I’m a children’s librarian. (Hi, Sam.) Okay, now that all the skeletons are out of my closet… I loved this book. One of the more brilliantly written books I’ve read in quite some time, actually. But, indeed, I am an adult, so I can’t speak for any YA readers out there. It isn’t on my library’s shelves yet, and the holds list consists entirely of librarians from my system (based most likely on the starred review you mentioned before)… so, again, no idea how it will fare with the actual teen crowd. At any rate, I hope the committee agrees with you and me, Karyn, and throws something pretty and gold on the cover come January. Anyway, this is my first trip to the blog – looks good! I’ll have to backtrack and catch up on all the stuff I’ve missed.

  7. I respect the heck out of you Karyn, but this may well be a DNF for me. I’m not a fan of dismal, dreary, depressing, and that’s all I’m getting out of the lineage / history of young Clem. Terrific writing, yes, but life is depressing is so not my cup of tea. And, having skipped to the end to see if that would inspire me to go on … uh, no.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Oh, but the tension and the longing and the repeating history! That said, I absolutely see where you are coming from. Did you read/like Wish House by Rees? This reminded me of Wish House and Byatt’s The Children’s Hour, with perhaps just a hint of Rosamund Pilcher’s Coming Home and a definite focus on how all of that collides in the person of Clem and the hotpot of his adolescent journey. I was so interested in the writing and the intellectual scope and in this book as a type (I don’t think it qualifies as a genre, but maybe it does–British Class Novels Without Upstairs-Downstairs Plots?) that the depressing stuff didn’t bother me. Plus, there’s some wicked humor. I think it’s a longshot, but will you at least try again if it gets recognized?

  8. Karyn, as I was obsessing with this way too much on my rainy night home, I realized specifically what made me put down the book: the meannes and cruelty in the characters in the early chapters (I didn’t get beyond the move to the council houses.). Entirely too familiar, and as I avoid that in real life I’m avoiding it in the book. Combined with a sort of “some are born to endless night” vibe, which is another major button pusher for me, and it’s on the side table. If it gets the nod, I will return to it and finish the whole thing. Promise.

  9. I’m about a month late on this, but I finally got to L:AED and I had to comment. I won’t be as articulate as others have been, so I’ll just say – I loved this one. Brilliant, made my top 5 for the year. As for the question of whether or not it would appeal to actual YAs, I’m 16 and found myself riveted by all of it – the history, the politics, the love story (really more lust than love it seemed to me but really they’re the same thing, or at least inextricably intertwined, when you’re a teenager) in equal measure. So, yeah. Really brilliant. Great review, too!

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