I only read Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram because Patrick Ness told me to, (me, and anyone else who was listening when he did his inheritance books on radio 4 extra). There’s a pleasing symmetry to the fact that, in my head at least, it’s the perfect companion to his own A Monster Calls.
Let me explain, because you probably wouldn’t get that impression from the dust jackets.
Peet’s Life is about… well, just that really. A synopsis of the plot would reveal that the book details a love affair between a working class boy and a wealthy girl in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, but a plot synopsis is about as much use for understanding this book as a car manual is for understanding a camel.
What Life really is, at least to me, is an attempt to answer the following question. What’s the point of people? And why should we care if they’re threatened with nuclear obliteration?
Structurally the book flits back and forth between the story of three generations of a Norfolk family, (culminating with Clem Ackroyd, one of our young lovers) and an hilarious, informative and at times down right terrifying account of the build-up to the US – Soviet confrontation over the Nuclear Missiles placed in Cuba by the USSR in October 1962. The passages dealing with the family Ackroyd and their community seem almost breathlessly distractable, constantly breaking off to describe the wedding of a grandmother or the building of a school. At first this makes the novel seem scatter shot, until you flick back to it’s title, and realise these details aren’t digressions, they are absolutely key to the book as a whole.
Death (so long as it happens to other people) gets abstract fast in Human minds. People are great at thinking about it without feeling it, its a survival skill, and that goes double for the threat of death on a large scale, triple if it occurred in the past, and you can square the lot if it went down a long way away. The Cuban missile crisis ticks every one of these boxes. It was distant: temporally, geographically and it was so mind-numbingly awesome in its potential to wreak Armageddon that its nigh on impossible for those of us who didn’t live through it to know what it was like. Peet’s made it his mission to make us feel it, to shudder at the thought of the lives it almost destroyed. And he does it by showing us the value of those lives in the only currency that really matters: in grandma’s weddings, in the crippling embarrassment of teenage erections, in memories, and in details.
Clem and Frankie’s love is the emotional sun of this solar system, the story that all the other stories revolve around. Peet shows us that love through the eyes of a teenager. He describes it in ways that mythologise it, that make it burn brightly against the backdrop of all those other mundane details, but its those details that make the mythology possible. You have to know Clem’s family, in order to know what it means for him to be willing to give it up to be with Frankie.
The message (although this book isn’t defined by its message), is pretty clear: The lives we value are the ones we know well enough, or can imagine well enough tell ourselves stories about. Peet helps us imagine more of the detail around the other lives in the world, and to remember and care that they’re still in danger from the 7,000 warheads still in existence.
If Life: An Exploded Diagram is a little love song to all the reasons we should cling on to people, then A Monster Calls is, at least in part, about learning to let them go.
Patrick Ness’s short, brutally poignant book, based on an idea and some notes by Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before she could write it, is structured around stories. Conor, who’s mother is dying of a degenerative illness, is visited in the night by a vast, tree-like monster who promises to tell him three stories, in exchange for which Conor must confess a single, shattering, truth. Each of the stories told by the monster begin like conventional fairy tales before diverging towards conclusions that have far more of the ragged ring of truth about them than the fairy tales would. Each of them resounds in the mind like a warning against the platitudes kids like Conor are told: ‘She’s a fighter, she’ll pull through.’,'If you only believe..’ and of course the deadly: ‘It’ll all be all right in the end’.
Because sometimes its not all right, and we have to remember that, because otherwise the fairy tales we tell ourselves grow too powerful, we believe them too deeply, and friction between them and reality threatens to tear us apart.
But A Monster Calls isn’t a bleak book. It’s not just about letting go, it’s about it being OK to let go. It’s about a teenage boy learning to forgive himself for being human.
Peet and Ness’s books are (for me at least) both about life and stories, they cover their themes from opposite perspectives, but they compliment rather than contradict each other. Life: An Exploded Diagram is about all the reasons we need to cling to life and stories. A Monster Calls is about all the reasons we need to let them go.