‘The Universe versus Alex Wood’ is Gavin Extence’s debut novel and what a surprise it was! I bought the Kindle edition of this book several months ago and didn’t really know what to expect. I believe it is aimed at young adults and I imagined it to be in the same vein as Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.
According to the synopsis from the official website “Alex Woods knows that he hasn’t had the most conventional start in life. He knows that growing up with a clairvoyant single mother won’t endear him to the local bullies. He also knows that even the most improbable events can happen – he’s got the scars to prove it. What he doesn’t know yet is that when he meets ill-tempered, reclusive widower Mr Peterson, he’ll make an unlikely friend. Someone who tells him that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make the best possible choices. So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing….”
The story is a quirky tale in which the hero, an eccentric boy named Alex, looks back on his life from the ages of 12 to 17 in order to explain how he has arrived at a particular point in his life. Alex acts as narrator and the entire story is seen through his eyes. Alex is one of life’s outsiders, a curious mix of naiveté and intelligence, overthinking every situation to ensure that he always acts in a way he feels to be appropriate with little thought to the consequences for himself.
The story is unusual and whilst I initially had some difficulty getting into the story, once I did it kept my attention until the very end.
Without ruining the story, I can say that that I did not expect the subject matter that arose towards the second half of the book. Extence, through Alex’s thoughts, manages to deal with a huge moral dilemma in a gently thought-provoking and touching way, without veering towards sentimentality. The controversial issue was tackled with a splash of humour and a lightness of touch that seemed intended not to provoke tears from the readers but to encourage people to look at the subject matter through Alex’s eyes in a logical and compassionate way and to consider the thought process behind such a decision.
I was concerned that the book would try to be a bit too clever for its own good to the detriment of the storyline, however it set a perfect tone between light hearted humour and serious subject matter. It is not easily pigeon-holed into one category, it is a comedy? a drama?
The characterisation of this novel is very good and you can’t help but warm to Alex and his unique way of looking at the world. The story can make you laugh out loud or reduce you to tears.
This is a beautifully written book full of wit and warmth. It is a brilliant achievement, particularly for a debut novel, and I would encourage any reader to give this one a try. I am hoping that Extence may have a few more novels up his sleeve…
Ginger Cat x