The Universe versus Alex Woods – Gavin Extence
From one really brilliant book, right into another.
This book has a particularly good opening chapter, as seventeen-year-old Alex Woods drives off a car ferry into Dover and is taken into police custody. His car contains a bag of marijuana, and the ashes of his late friend Mr Peterson; and it’s clear that whatever Alex has been doing, it’s attracted a lot of attention nationwide. So, just what is going on? The story takes a long time to answer that question, instead going back to Alex’s childhood, when he was sent into a coma after being hit by a meteorite. With such peculiar elements to its opening chapters, I found myself wondering if this was going to be a tongue-in-cheek, slightly fantastical story, but in fact it’s generally grounded in reality and takes itself seriously. We follow Alex as he grows up, dealing with the various problems life throws at him, and eventually forming a friendship with the elderly Mr Peterson.
Sometimes you find a book that manages to really speak to you, and makes you think about how you see yourself. That’s how I felt when I read this, as I could relate to Alex in many ways, particularly with his interest in science and – unfortunately – how he attracts bullies in secondary school. In fact, he’s one of the most well-constructed protagonists that I’ve read about recently. He’s a pleasant, well-meaning young man, but is undoubtedly flawed, making mistakes that are understandable for both his character in particular and a teenage boy in general. He has a very particular way of seeing the world, based on logic and clear-cut concepts; but his perceptions, conclusions, and attitudes in various situations are not always correct, and he does get called out on his mistakes. Who Alex is comes through particularly effectively in his relationships with other characters, such as his mother, and how he responds to certain developments regarding Mr Peterson in the second half of the book.
Extence gives Alex a very clear, unique narrator’s voice, and really gets how the world would look to somebody like this – again, for both somebody with Alex’s unique qualities and any teenage boy. I particularly liked Alex’s clear run-down of how bullying occurs in secondary school, i.e. how targets are singled out by their various differences from the norm. ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’ is an apt title, as Alex is given a lot to deal with; this endears him to the reader very well, particularly as he’s not a whiner – he just tries to work through things in his own way.
I can’t say too much more about the story without spoiling it, but it’s a wonderful journey, raising some interesting themes about how life should be perceived and lived and made the most of, and making a big emotional impact in the latter stages. Overall, a great story with a great protagonist, and a real joy to read. Rating: 4.5/5.