Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Review: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

Book cover of The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Blame Charlotte for this one. Well actually, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is amazing, so perhaps it should be go thank Charlotte for this one. I wasn't going to bother until I came across it in Waterstones and reminded myself how much she loved it. It almost makes up for the time she made me read Hope: A Tragedy. Hey, I said almost.

Plot summary: 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.

For some reason, I'd assumed that The Universe Versus Alex Woods was a fantasy book. Maybe I'd confused it with The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (I don't know how, but the two do meld together in my head) or maybe the word 'Universe' in the title implied cosmic connections. Maybe I'm just terrible at reading blurbs, who knows? In any event, it doesn't matter what my expectations were because the actual book wildly surpassed all of them.

You know when you open a book and a feeling of contentment washes over you, like a little voice whispering 'Yeeeeeeah, we're going to get along just fine?' This book is the epitome of that feeling. I started to read that chatty, rambly tone and was hooked by the second page.

The tone reminds me of a more casual Scarlett Thomas. It's more accessible and relaxed, but goes off on tangents in a similar way. By that, I mean that it feels as though the narrator is actually telling you a story - when a friend sits down across from you in a coffee shop, they rarely manage to give you a perfect timeline of events. Instead they may also tell you some interesting facts about something pertaining to their story or they'll slip in a few irrelevant details. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is just like that - Alex will go off on a tangent to tell us about homeopathy, Tarot cards, meteorites or anything else that strikes his fancy. It never feels like an essay within a book, however; it blends in seamlessly with the story and is always relevant and interesting.

It just works so well. Alex obviously goes through a series of events that are very unlikely to happen to those of us sitting at home, but Gavin Extence manages to make it seem more believable by weaving in little bits of normality. Mr Peterson, for example, writes to Amnesty International as a hobby. It's a very mundane and lifelike thing to do, which clicked in my head as just being kind of perfect for the character. It talks about the normal things that aren't usually mentioned in books and the contrast to the very exotic beginning is wonderful.

It's possible to find order in chaos, and it's equally possible to find chaos underlying apparent order. Order and chaos are slippery concepts. They're like a set of twins who like to swap clothing from time to time. Order and chaos frequently intermingle and overlap, the same as beginnings and endings. Things are often more complicated, or more simple, than they seem. Often it depends on your angle.
I think that telling a story is a way of trying to make life's complexity more comprehensible. It's a way of trying to separate order from chaos, patterns from pandemonium. Other ways include tarot and science.
The moment I'm about to describe is the culmination of one set of chaotic circumstances and the starting point for another. It's a moment that makes me think about how life can seem highly ordered and highly chaotic all at the same time. It's an ending and a new beginning.
I had no idea what the central theme of this book was and it came as a surprise that it was such a serious, controversial issue. Don't get me wrong; it's executed beautifully. It never actually comes right down and agrees with any particular side of the debate, but the author has clearly done an awful lot of research on the procedure and moral viewpoints involved. Why yes, I am being very vague, but in this case I think it's better to read the book without really knowing 100% what I'm talking about. You'll survive.

If I had one complaint, it's that the relationship between Alex and Mr Peterson is supposed to quite deep, but we never really see it develop into that. We're just told that it's there without ever really being shown. It's a minor fault, but one that I think would really have helped us to understand Alex's moral predicament in relation to the last paragraph.

I hate that I'm never going to get to read The Universe Versus Alex Woods again for the first time. There's an odd mix of the mundane and the strange that fits together with the casual tone perfectly. Add that to the hands-on approach to such a huge moral issue and the result is an amazing book that I can't wait to reread.

Read an extract here or visit Gavin Extence's website.


  1. I LOVED this book! I'm so happy you read it. It was so fantastic. And like you, I for some reason thought that there would be a fantasy or paranormal aspect to it before I started it...

    Alex and Mr. Petersen's friendship seemed like one of those where they don't have very many deep bonding moments, because he's old and grumpy and it would just be awkward, so I guess I still felt their friendship pretty strongly even though it wasn't really shown? If that makes sense. Anyways, YES, super awesome book. Everybody should read it!

  2. So glad to hear you liked this one - I loved it, but again, didn't have a great idea of what it was actually about before I picked it up. I would struggle to think of anybody who wouldn't like this book! It's difficult to deal with such weighty ethical issues without coming across as preachy, but it is done so well here.

  3. Damn you and your stellar review! I'll have to dawdle even more over mine than I already am so that it's far enough away from yours :-p

    I'm so, SO pleased that you loved this though and that I'm one step closer to balancing out the evil of recommending Hope: A Tragedy!

    Oh, and that bit on the bus? That bit made me feel sick for Alex and it was THEN that I realised how much I was invested in the whole thing. I cried at the end (which I do a lot, to be fair) because I was just so in love with how the subject matter was handled. I hadn't really noticed the point that you've made about Alex and Mr Peterson but I kind of see it now...

    I loved Alex a great deal and his tone made a really brilliant approach to a tricky subject just adorable. I'd read it all over again and you're point about it being a tragedy not to be able to read it again for the first time was exactly how I felt when I'd weeped through the ending.

  4. Ohhhhh, I love when you love a book so much that you're sad you can't read it again for the first time..... FINE, I will add this to my wishlist!


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