Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Book Review - The Universe Versus Alex Woods

The Universe Versus Alex Woods
by Gavin Extence

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn't had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he's fairly sure he's done the right thing...

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This was another of the books I’m reading for the Richard and Judy Book Club Challenge, hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea. I enjoyed the first book I read as part of the challenge, so I had high hopes for this one too, and I did really like it.

The book starts with the end of the story, when Alex suffers an epileptic attack while stopped at customs, with marijuana in the glovebox and an urn full of ashes on the front seat. Alex is in big trouble, with the whole country in uproar about something he has done, but we don’t know what yet. The story is then propelled into the past as Alex decides to explain exactly what happened to him that led him to this moment.

I’m not often a fan of the ‘start at the end’ kind of story. Sometimes it works very well, but if it’s not used for a story that really needs to be told that way, or if the events leading up to that moment are actually more boring than the event itself, then it can just be frustrating. Here, it largely works well. Alex begins by telling us about an unlikely but true event in which he was struck by a meteorite. This has a large impact on his life, and leads him down certain paths, which eventually causes him to meet an old American man, Mr. Peterson, who lives in his village. They strike up an odd but funny and heart-warming friendship. I loved the character of Mr. Peterson and really enjoyed the parts of the book where he and Alex interacted and discussed life and literature.

I did feel, however, that the ‘middle section’ of the novel dragged a bit. For me, this book was too long, and I would have preferred things to move more quickly towards the events that we saw at the beginning, and to the resolution. Alex sometimes takes too long to explain things to the reader that, while it makes sense that Alex finds them interesting, to the reader might be less so, and might not seem so relevant to his overall story. I think the book would have been more enjoyable, and the messages and emotional impact much stronger, if it had moved just a little quicker, focussing more on Alex and Mr. Peterson and less on some of the other things that happened. Having said that, it does have a very strong end, and I was quite surprised when I finally realised what Alex’s mysterious, controversial actions (which were hinted at the beginning of the book) were going to be.

Alex is written convincingly and has a compelling voice, and though I sometimes found him a little hard to relate to, I did really like him as a narrator and main character. This is a very thoughtful book with a lot to say about the world and the assumptions and rules people make for themselves, and Alex’s very simple, matter-of-fact way of telling the story really worked well for this. The book left me with lots to think about, and there were some very moving moments.

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