Well, this one's going to be a bit tricky to write. and not because I hated, or I loved it. But possibly both. At the same time. All at once. Let me explain....
When I first read about this one, well, to say I was intrigued was an understatement. Code Name Verity had given me an appetite for some more exquisitely written twentieth century historical YA fiction and the political angle of this one got my attention, being in the possession of a politics degree myself (although I have never actually used it from the moment I graduated).
Let's start with the positives - the writing. It was superb. It was funny. I spent the first half of the novel highlighting at least a paragraph a page. It made me want to eat my Kindle it was so damn good.
Nostalgics believe that the past is nicer than the present. It isn't. Or wasn't. Nostalgics want to cuddle the past like a puppy. But the past has bloody teeth and bad breath. I look into it's mouth like a sorrowing dentist.
The first third builds up a picture of Clem's family history in intricate and personal detail, going back to his great-grandparents. Each member is so brilliantly captured, especially his grandmother Win and father George, and it felt like a privilege to read such fantastically-written characters.
However... as wonderful as this prose was, when it was getting close to the middle of the book and I still knew very little about our protangonist, my mind started to wonder where the hell this was going exactly. The whole family history thing reminded me of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, but whereas that was like a jigsaw slotting into place as the book went on, this felt like the author was giving us all this background information just because he could. As gorgeous as it was, I just wanted it to have more of a purpose.
My mixed feelings continued when it came to the whole concept of the novel. I loved the idea of this - one of the key events in twentieth century history having an indirect influence on one of the key events in the life of a seventeen year old boy in a remote part of Norfolk. And I really, really wanted it to work. And it sort of did, but, well, it would have been and much more enjoyable read if there was slightly less history and slightly more Clem and Frankie. Every time we got to one of those key moments in Clem's love life, it was abandoned and we're back with JFK for another two chapters. Although I enjoyed the way he made major political figures characters in this story (especially JFK with his randiness and his ailments), it was felt overdone, clunky and forced a lot of the time. What could have been a way of making history more fascinating may well have become, I fear, even more of a turn-off to those who aren't already fascinated with it.
The other thing I was never quite sure of was Clem. We learn so much about those around him, yet I finished the book feeling I didn't know that much more about our narrator than a the start (or more accurately, the middle or thereabouts when Clem finally became a character). His voice didn't half tell a great story, but the overriding impression I got of him was just a boy who was desperate to get his first shag. And that's about it. And I wish we'd got more of Frankie into the story. I learned so much about her from just one sentence (not all of it good, mind), and I would have loved to see more of her character that wasn't only to do with her relationship with Clem.
Despite my critisisms, I would still very much recommend you read this - it's original, beautifully written and doesn't patronise the reader - like with the best YA, I can imagine people of all ages enjoying this (ok, maybe not ALL ages). I just wanted all the elements to gel together more seamlessly and to care just a little bit more about the story and the person telling it.
But it also serves as a very important reminder of a period of history that could well have been the darkest of them all, and for that it must be applauded.