At this point I need to take you on a short detour. I'm very much a cause-and-effect sort of a fellow. I'm fascinated by the way things fit together (and come to pieces). And if we were to take what eventually happened to Frankie and me and drew something like a flowchart of how it came about, one of its arrows would lead us into the darkness of a Caribbean night.
Clem Ackroyd, the son of a war veteran and a careful bookkeeper, is a working-class boy hoping to one day scrape together the funds to go to art school. Frankie Mortimer is the daughter of a wealthy land owner, living in an inherited estate. Soon, in Norfolk, England, the two will embark on a relationship that must be kept a secret, and if found out, their world could be blown apart. Little do they know, that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev are about to do just that, as the event later known in history books as the Cuban Missile Crisis begins to unfold.
Life: An Exploded Diagram is set in three main time periods. The novel opens in the year 1945, in Norfolk, England, focusing on the joy and hardship that followed World War II. The story then jumps to 1962, the plot jumping across the pond to illuminate John F. Kennedy and his crisis in Cuba, and then back to Clem, Frankie, and life on the farm. In the last chapter of the book, the reader will have found themselves in New York City at the beginning of a time with enough turbulence to give the 60s a run for their money. All three of these settings will explore the effects of war, and more importantly explosions, on the generations.
In May of 2012, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, Mal Peet spoke in an interview of where his idea for this novel came from. He said: “I was thinking about nuclear weapons…and I was wondering where they’d all gone. We don’t talk about them anymore…The fact that there is enough stuff out there to blow us to Kingdom Come seems to have slipped our minds.”
Peet uses an interesting metaphor to describe the Cuban Missile Crisis in a nutshell: [The Americans] and the Russians were like two guys in a cellar, up to their waists in petrol, arguing about who's got the bigger box of matches.
Throughout the novel, several chapters are dedicated solely to describing the crisis to readers with little to no knowledge about the event. But, let it be known that this brief insight is not written in any way like a textbook. It is fact, but still written in a literary voice. He describes President Kennedy in all of his good and his bad, explores American democracy as if he were a spy - he goes deeper than what was ever in the public eye. Although Peet is an author from England, he seems to play the role of a British countryman looking in from the outside, as well as a member of Kennedy's cabinet, all at the same time.
The novel is divided into three parts:
1) Putting Things Together
2) Blowing Things Apart
3) Picking Up the Pieces.
Each part is then divided appropriately into short vignette-like chapters with titles such as: A Latin-American Interlude, The Girl Who Ate His Heart Bums a Smoke, Jack and Nikita Talk Turkey, and The Day the World Ended.
The chapters centered around Clem and Frankie are narrated by none other than Clem himself, in all of his British dialect, awkwardness and wrong assumptions. His voice is distinctive and unique, as he and Frankie discover all the wrongs, and more importantly rights, involved with falling in love for the first time.
On page 376, Clem, and ultimately, Peet, makes a profound statement on history.
I lived through all these times, these great events, without caring very much, concerned with my own aging rather than the world's. Most of us do likewise. History is the heavy traffic that prevents us from crossing the road. We're not especially interested in what it consists of. We wait, more or less patently, for it to pause, so that we can get to the liquor store or the laundromat or the burger bar.
If I were reading this book for an English class (or I guess one could read this for a history class I suppose) and I were asked to “find a passage from the text that speaks to the true message of the story” the above would be my pick.
Life: An Exploded Diagram is a brilliantly written novel, exposing the individual's, and the world's wounds to young readers in a way that is humorous, extremely romantic, and poignant. But also with a sense of finality that leaves the traveler, not the reader, feeling enlightened, yet tired, as if ending an explosive journey.