Clem was born premature, when his pregnant mother was startled by a heartbroken Nazi pilot shooting her chimney to pieces at the end of World War II in rural Norfolk, England.
Using this birth as a pivot point, Mal Peet tells us the story of Clem's family from the time his grandmother was a girl to nearly the present day. We see the twentieth century work its changes on this family, as wars take men away and bring them back, social movements carry Clem's family out of their indentured hovel and into estate housing and allow Clem to attend an exclusive school, and romantic love finds a foothold.
The book has the feeling of a BBC miniseries. There's the picturesque country, the understated but pungent characters, and the relations between the family in the manor house and the laborers in the village. Clem is a terrific narrator: observant, intelligent, honest about his feelings and darkly nostalgic for the world of his youth. Which is also, unsurprisingly, the world of Mal Peet's youth.
The rather impenetrable Norfolk dialect is rendered phonetically - I kept hearing Bubble from AbFab, but a quick search of the British Library's Survey of English Dialects (and god bless British scholars, right? they've considered anyone outside of London to be like exotic tribespeople since before Thomas Hardy) gave me a better idea: it's like a sketch of speaking, just a couple of sounds per word.
And just as in a BBC series, there is humor and humanity and nobility to be found in all corners. It's like Downton Abbey meets Shameless - there is common ground there, and not just the accents. See above: RE humanity and love.
Life: An Exploded Diagram is a contender in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books. It's up against A Monster Calls, an illustrated novel about a boy coming to terms with his mother's terminal illness via his relationship with a monstrous yew tree and an only slightly less prickly grandmother.
Most people think the tree book is going to come out ahead in this matchup. They're probably right. Mal Peet's book doesn't really read like a YA novel - it reads like an adult novel. The chronological span, for one thing, is quite epic for a YA novel. Three generations is an eternity compared to books whose events sometimes span as little as one prom night. In addition, adult characters are given their own stories, motivations, and actions - and not merely in relation to the teen character.
But it's not like I wouldn't hand this to a teen. I would, I so very very would. In fact, I might suggest it as a class read for a high school class studying the Cold War - the Cuban Missile Crisis is given a lot of pages here. But Life: An Exploded Diagram is teen reading in the way that Jonathan Safran Foer can be teen reading - not an obvious choice. I have been saying that it's kind of like John Irving by way of John Green.
I am happy to see Mal Peet pulling a little humor into his story - I was worried, given that cover, that this book would be all doom. But even the most mundane lives and the most shocking world events have a little humor embedded in there somewhere, and it is a relief to find it.
Read Mr. Peet's own take on it on Undercover Reads.