The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence

Review published on March 6, 2013. Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

“Full explanations are much messier. They can’t be conveyed in five unprepared stop-start minutes. You have to give them time and space to unfold. (…) I’m going to tell you my story, the full story, in the manner I think it should be told.”

 

Alex Woods is not your average teenager. He didn’t have a conventional start to his life. With a clairvoyant mother who doesn’t know who his father is his life was always going to be a little bit different. Things really change though when Alex is ten years old and gets hit on the head by a meteorite. When he wakes up after two weeks in a coma his life has changed. He discovers that he has become something of a celebrity, that his hair will not grow back over his scar and that he will have to contend with epileptic fits from now on. After a year of forced house-arrest to come to terms with his fits and the medication he takes for it, Alex has a hard time fitting back into school and life in general.

When an unfortunate incident involving three bullies, a greenhouse and an epileptic fit bring Alex into contact with Mr. Peterson, it is the start of a remarkable and very special friendship.

 

“The first thing I learnt that day was this: what you think you know about a person is only a fraction of the story.”

 

The young boy and the older man grow close through a shared love for classical music and Kurt Vonnegut novels. When Mr. Peterson is diagnosed with a debilitating and fatal disease which will force him to face a slow and excruciating death his options are limited. With Alex’ help and determination though, Mr. Peterson finds that he is able to make the decisions he wants to make. And Alex has no regrets. Not even when, aged 17, he is apprehended in Dover with an urn of ashes on the passenger seat of his car and a bag of marijuana in the glove compartment. The whole of England may be in an uproar about his recent journey; Alex knows he’s done the right thing.

This is a very special book. At first glance it is a charming coming of age story about a young man with a less than conventional life. On further inspection though this proves to be a thought-provoking work of fiction dealing with weighty subjects such as bullying, illness, life, death, euthanasia and personal responsibility.

 

“Understanding and accepting that you have a permanent illness does not mean being a slave to it. It’s the first step you have to make so that you can go on living your life.”

 

And yet this book doesn’t read like a work that is trying to convey a message. This book doesn’t preach, doesn’t try to convince the reader about anything and is remarkably – even deceptively – easy to read. And yet it poses an important question: should we, or should we not have the right to decide when to end our own lives? I realise that this makes the book sound as if it will be a depressing and heavy read, but it isn’t. The sad and reflective sections in this book are perfectly balanced by the lighter and at times laugh out loud funny parts. The differences between young, curious and innocent Alex and the older and world-weary Mr. Peterson are at times very funny; a delight of confusion and misunderstandings. At the same time their friendship is wonderful; these two characters enrich each other’s lives in a multitude of ways.

Gavin Extence hits the voice of young Alex spot-on. He brings this character who is older than his years in some ways, yet very innocent in others, to life in a way that made me want to go and find him. The writing in this book is smooth and takes the reader on an emotionally charged journey they won’t want to end.

This is also a wonderful book for those who love reading. We meet Kurt Vonnegut’s books in rather poignant ways and are also treated to parts of Catch 22 with equal relevance to the story in this book.

Beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, very clever and original this is the best book I’ve read so far this year and will, undoubtedly, end up among my favourites for 2013. I can’t rave enough about this book; it is nothing short of brilliant.

I’ll give the final word to Mr. Peterson:

 

“In the long history of human affairs, common sense doesn’t have the greatest track record.”

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Lucy Woods reads from Diving Belles

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The Night Rainbow, by Claire King

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