Monday, February 25, 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods - reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

If there’s a trend emerging for fiction in 2013 then so far I think it’s for quirky books that make us laugh at serious subjects.  The latest is The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Hodder & Stoughton, $29.99), a debut novel from UK author Gavin Extence. It’s a story about unexpected friendship and euthanasia, and is spectacularly barmy, unexpectedly moving and reasonably thought provoking.

Our hero Alex Woods is an unusual teenager - equal parts wise and innocent. Hit by a falling meteorite in a freak childhood accident, he’s growing up into a science obsessed geek who is guileless, compassionate, and epileptic – in short he’s just the kind of boy to be tormented by school bullies.

While fleeing from a trio of his attackers Alex ends up seeking refuge in an unlocked greenhouse that belongs to pot smoking Vietnam veteran, Mr Peterson. The bullies smash the greenhouse, Alex gets the blame and his penance is to go over to Mr Peterson’s place every Saturday and help him write letters for Amnesty International.

The weird kid and the lonely old widower turn out to have much in common. Both are misfits who share a love of reading, especially the works of Kurt Vonnegut. As the years pass they meet regularly and their friendship deepens. Then Mr Peterson gets sick and, knowing his friend is facing a slow and painful death, Alex is forced to make a tough decision – can he help him die the way he chooses to? (I’m not giving too much away here as when we first meet Alex he is driving through customs with an urn full of Mr Peterson’s ashes on the passenger seat).

Alex is an Adrian Mole for the new generation. I suspect there’s quite a lot of Extence in him and there are points where the author over-indulges his own geekiness – a section on the Large Hadron Collider for instance – to the mild detriment of the book for anyone who happens not to share his obsessions.

In my opinion he also isn’t entirely successful at thinking himself inside the head of a 17-year-old kid. Alex is much too old for his age in some ways, much too young in others. This is something Extence attempts to address late in the piece and not especially convincingly. For the reader it’s better to just go with it because if you’re going to get picky it’ll spoil some gloriously comic moments as well as some extremely touching ones.

This book is no right-to-die rant. While clearly pro-euthanasia, Extence has crafted an eccentric and endearing story around the subject. Although aimed at adults it’s a novel with an easy crossover into the teen market and would be a good introduction to a discussion about end of life ethics.

In fact, with its entertaining blend of facts and funnies, and its nimble handling of a serious issue, The Universe Versus Alex Woods might be just the novel to get reading-averse teenage boys interested in fiction.

Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 24 February, 2013.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950's Italy and was published in September 2012.
Her next novel, The Food Of Love Cooking School, will be published later this year

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