Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence



‘…life can seem highly ordered and highly chaotic all at the same time.’

This is such a touching, captivating story with a wonderful narrative voice in Alex. What a marvellous debut novel – it’s funny, brave, sad and original. Gavin Extence doesn’t shy away from handling sensitive, difficult subjects and he does it thoughtfully, with honesty and humour.

The opening is set up to make us wonder at what has gone before, because we meet seventeen-year-old Alex on his way back into the UK, being stopped at Dover by a customs officer who finds some interesting items in Alex’s car, namely 113 grams of marijuana and the ashes of his closest friend, Mr Peterson. Alex then takes us back, recounting the significant and often highly unusual events of his life to date, ultimately looping nicely back at the end of the novel to how he came to be in his present unusual situation. This structure, the bookending of the novel with the present day, and the past sandwiched inbetween, makes the read into a pleasing whole.

Alex has never known his father, and his mother has a somewhat unorthodox career as a clairvoyant, running a shop selling all manner of fortune telling type goods and offering her fortune telling services there. As Alex relates his past, we discover that he suffered an injury in a bizarre accident – struck on the head by a meteorite after it hit his home several years earlier. He has to learn to live with the medical after-effects of this, suffering seizures, and the occurrence also prompts an interest in neurology.

We learn of the cruelty of school bullies singling out Alex for all his differences, and we witness the unlikely yet firm friendship that is formed between Alex and lonely, widowed Vietnam veteran Isaac Peterson, leading to them sharing their love of books; reading has helped Alex in the past, he tells us that when he was physically restricted he could at least allow his brain to explore; there are several literary references such as to Catch 22, but once he meets Mr Peterson, it is primarily Kurt Vonnegut’s novels that are discussed (I haven’t read them, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment, but if you are acquainted with them and/or like them, it will probably increase yours). Their companionship is at the core of the novel, and the bond that grows between them is charming and through it Alex learns that ‘what you think you know about a person is only a fraction of the story.’ They were both lonely in their own ways before they got to know one another, and they each bring a great deal of enjoyment into the life of the other. The journey the two of them embark on is very brave and moving, but you must discover the details of this yourself by reading the book.

Alex has a keen grasp of scientific matters and is very intelligent and really thinks things through, making informed decisions, however sometimes he seems na├»ve and inexperienced too, and then we remember that he is a teenaged boy, and that despite his maturity and the wisdom he shows, he is still learning about the world and about people. I liked the friendship between Alex and Ellie, and some of the dialogue is really witty and pitch perfect for the characters involved. Another use of language I loved was the description of the ‘death rattles’ of the school bus; ‘it would wheeze and shudder like a giant asthmatic cyborg.’

This is such an involving, enjoyable tale, with a likeable, distinctive young man as the hero. Once I was drawn into the story, I was reluctant to stop reading until I had heard Alex’s entire tale. It’s one of those engaging books that you don’t want to end, and where the narrator is utterly convincing; rather than feeling as though I was reading the author’s words through Alex, I felt I was reading Alex’s story – as a character he became very real. This book will have you thinking about life and death, about luck and fate, and it reminded me of the enjoyment of reading.

I’ll leave the last word to Alex; ‘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.’


Published by Hodder & Stoughton

You can find out about @ThingsAlexKnows on twitter.

14 comments:

  1. Hearing lots of good things about this one, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. I've seen a lot of other favourable blog reviews of this one too Tracy. Now I can see why. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. I just got this a week ago, so will come back and read your review properly once I've read the book!

    Sarah

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    1. Thanks for commenting. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  3. Alex sounds like a kid I'd love!

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    1. Thanks for commenting, he is rather likeable!

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  4. Hi Lindsay,

    What a wonderfully in depth and detailed review, which does perfect justice to what sounds like an immensely difficult and emotional journey for Alex.

    I couldn't believe the amount of fantastic ratings and reviews the book has received on virtually all of the major sites ... what a debut novel for Gavin.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Yvonne

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    1. Thanks for your lovely kind comment Yvonne, much appreciated. Yes, I was impressed by the great ratings for this one and felt when I started it, will it live up to them, but it did indeed!

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  5. I'm really happy to hear you enjoyed this one! It is a great read on so many levels. Has it convinced you to consider trying some Vonnegut?

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    1. Thanks Marie. I loved your review of this one. It has made me think about it, it's a bit outside my comfort zone but this book has made me consider it.

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  6. I can't wait to read this one. It's been languishing on my kindle for way too long! I wonder if it'll make me want to read the Vonnegut on my shelf too? Did it make you fancy reading any?

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    1. I hope you'll enjoy it a lot too Ellie. It did make me think about it a bit, maybe I will one day.

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  7. I love what Alex says about storytelling. I will have to look out for this book!

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    1. Me too! Thanks for commenting Lindsey.

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