The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

The Earth Is Blue. There Is No God (review of Life: An Unexploded Diagram by Mal Peet)

Life: An Exploded DiagramLife: An Unexploded Diagram
Mal Peet
Walker 2011

Clem Ackroyd is the only child of a small family living in the Norfolk of the 1960's. Born into post war Britain neither he has little interest in the world at large apart from the vague whim that he wishes to escape into it and away from the suffocating environs of his relatives and home. While a scholarship to the local grammar school offers hope for the future, he remains solidly working class – not an issue until he meets Frankie, daughter of the local landowner and thief of his youthful heart. Around Clem exist Ruth, his solid, wistful mother, Win, grandmother and religious tyrant and George, an ex soldier who finds his return home to be a paradoxically challenging anti-climax. Nothing seems able to penetrate the bubble of mundanity surrounding Clem and his family until news breaks regarding the far of island of Cuba, some pesky Russians and the very real possibility of nuclear war.

Readers are introduced to Clem in two separate ways. In the first person, Clem narrates the story from the hindsight-blessed heights of middle age, while in the third person he is the central peg in the story of his family and the world in which they live. While essentially the same person, the elder Clem has the advantage of increased objectivity while Clem The Younger lives through each event with a naivety, angst and gripping immediacy. He's a lovely character, struggling against a family whom does not entirely understand. The elder Clem makes for an enthralling story teller, adding depth and context to his younger self and the interesting times through which he has lived with great charm, pathos and wit.

Clem, while the lynch pin of Life: An Unexploded Diagram is far from the only character. In his own age group there are few other players but Frankie provides ample contrast and context being particularly well drawn in both her desire to escape her own circumstances and seeming lack of interest when it comes to Clem's own background. It is largely, though, the adult characters in the story that are most fascinating. Sections are told from the viewpoints of Ruth, George and Win – each exploring their own personal history and the events that have shaped them. The adult Clem is also more compelling that the junior version and where Mal Peet excels is his ability to breath life into the historical figures of JFK, Khrushchev and Castro.

Mal Peet's storytelling works on many different levels. On one hand it is a simple coming of age story, focusing on one boy and a short chapter during his life. Take a step back and it becomes the story of how a singular period during his life affected the man that this boy would become. Look again and it is the history of one family and their interwoven lives and personalities. Walk away at the end and you realise that running under, over and through the story of the Ackroyd's is a fascinating look at world history over the last century.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram covers an astonishing period of time without the reader being entirely aware that it is doing so. Moving from 1898 onwards, Peet guides the reader through the landscape of pre and post-war Britain, the move from the fields towards industrialisation and the emergence of the middle classes. This would be impressive enough but he then, using his adult narrator exceptionally skillfully, opens the story to encompass global events. Peet brazenly brings to life the political landscape surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, inhabiting politicians, highlighting their machinations and carefully explaining the sinister shadows that brought the world to the brink of global nuclear conflict. From Castro's manic patriotism to Kennedy's fear and Khrushchev's manipulations each major player becomes truly alive. Peet also explores lesser characters from Yuri Gagarin and his denial of a God to the lonely flight of the a U2 pilot, layer upon layer is added to a story that does so much more than what it says on the tin.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram is a book that is not necessarily easy to get in to. The beginning is gripping, the writing flawlessly beautiful and the story fascinating yet it takes time for the book to unfold as a complete work. The narrative structure can seem clunky at times and the plot takes a while to come together. However, Mal Peet has created one of those rare stories where, while enjoyable throughout, it is impossible to see the true genius of the work until you turn the last page – at which point I defy anyone not to be completely overwhelmed by its brilliance. Falling into neither YA nor adult genres, this is a book that should be read and absorbed by all because, as Peet so cleverly leads us to see, we do not live merely off the world but also in it. As we live our individual lives, the world at large whirls around us in a maelstrom of conflict, dynamism and never ending change and regardless of our awareness, it changes us with it. Do not make the mistake of picking up Life: An Unexploded Diagram and putting it down again – pick it up, stick with it and be blown away, it really is extraordinary.

Life: An Unexploded Diagram is available now. Thanks to Walker Books for sending me this title to review.


Oh Sya I wish I could express myself one tenth the way you do. Your review style, writing and analysis are really something to aspire to.
This book doesnt appeal to me but I do think it would be a valuable addition to the school library, I ahve a few boys in mind that I could bribe to read it & I am quite certain they would love it :D
Brilliant review!

I am going to give this one another go (someday) right now I have so many books I can't put down Im not in the mood to force myself to read it :( I loved the first chapter (the opening line is funny) but I got to page 116 and Im just bored. It's not really far in though and it gets such great reviews everywhere....
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