For a debut novel, I was immensely impressed with The Universe Versus Alex Woods. Combining lightness and darkness and tackling topics as serious as epilepsy, marijuana addiction and more without ever dwelling in over-sentimentality, Gavin Extence has created a touching and unique coming-of-age tale which just feels good for the soul.
The protagonist of the story is, of course, Alex Woods – a boy whose world was irrevocably changed by a small piece of the Universe when, at aged ten, he was struck down when a meteorite strikes straight through his bathroom ceiling.
Alex is considered lucky to have survived his ‘accident’, but it’s effects on his life are myriad, as he develops temporal lobe epilepsy and struggles to manage his seizures. Whilst he adjusts to his condition, he is withdrawn from school and compelled to spend his time reading, meditating and helping out in his clairvoyant mum’s shop.
Alex is a loveable character for me, with a philosophical view on the world and an extremely high intellect. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate to being loveable in secondary school; Alex reminds us “In case you didn’t know, in secondary school – especially in the early years of secondary school – diversity is not celebrated. In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit.”
On returning to school he finds himself the target of the school bullies. One day, the bullies chase him until he is forced to run into a neighbour’s garden and hide in the shed. That neighbour is reclusive widower and curmudgeon Mr Peterson, and that day is the catalyst for one of the most important friendships in Alex’s life.
Getting to know Mr Peterson, Alex says “The first thing I learned that day was this: what you think you know about a person is only a fraction of the story.” and this really sums up what this book is all about, as the reader becomes entranced in a tale about two people who you may well walk past in the street, their inner layers are gradually revealed, altering and exceeding your initial opinion.
The quirky friendship between Mr Peterson and Alex is a joy to read; and it never once felt odd for a young teenage boy and an elderly widower to be spending so much time together. Where Alex is thoughtful and considerate, American war veteran Mr Peterson is blunt and unequivocal, and their verbal sparring is witty and entertaining.
The entire story is narrated by Alex, and it provides a unique and exciting voice. Alex tells the tale in a relaxed tone, giving us the facts from his point of view whilst going off on many tangents which consider the bigger picture. As the story comes to a head, it tackles controversial issues (to tell you the main issue which comes to light would give away the majority of the story) but keeps a light tone even whilst delving into darkness through Alex’s refreshing perspective which is simultaneously incredibly naive and wise beyond his years.
It’s hard to describe what I love about this book, because I am not as good a writer as Extence. But I loved it – and I think it’s a book which deserves to be read more than once.