Alex Woods is seventeen when he is stopped at Dover by Customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes and the feeling that he’s done nothing wrong.
This is the story of how Alex goes from a twelve year old who is struck by a meteorite to being in Dover five years later and it involves an unusual friendship with the reclusive widower Mr Peterson.
This caught my eye because we did an episode of The Readers on the Waterstones 11 (their selection of 2013 debut fiction) and The Universe Versus Alex Woods (TUvsAW) caught my attention. It’s not a book I’d normally pick up but he fact that it had a meteorite in it gave it a slight SF edge and the title makes Alex sound like a superhero but I went in pretty much blind.
TUvsAW is one of those stories that relies heavily on the power of the narrator. As Alex retells the story of the last five years of his life. We are dragged into wondering how Alex managed to get stopped at Dover and for a long time that really isn’t clear. But that is because Alex is letting everything unfold as it happened to him.
Now I’ve got to be very careful with spoilers. I think knowing why Alex got there before you get told would cut the little cord that keeps you reading.
It’s not that Alex’s life isn’t fascinating in its own way (he has some intriguing views and obsessions) but it’s not very dramatic. It’s really about how his relationship with Mr Peterson changes as they get to know each other and how strong Alex becomes. Exctence gives them a grandfather/grandchild relationship and their friendship is quite sweet.
And that’s the thing; it’s a sweet story. Alex is funny. It has some sad and some extremely sad moments as well. It has a cast who all have their own distinct personalities and view. Though it is a limited cast and that is one of my issues with it.
The narration of Alex is obviously selective but it feels that Extence has been slightly too sparse with Alex’s life outside the story. Even the most lonely children usually find things to do with other people every now and again. Alex’s life feels a little too insular, which niggled at me as I read it.
I also felt it had that crossover feel of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime. Not because of their unique protagonists, though they do share that, but because a teenage reader may see themselves and their life differently after reading it.
I’m not sure they would be able to do what Alex does and I’m not sure how many people could. That is the strength of story that is being told. Alex’s voice keeps you reading but the ending makes you admire him and makes it a tale that you’re really glad you’ve read. Even it did need the occasional wiping of the eye.
It’s becoming a cliche to that say that x is a strong debut novel which shows the author has potential but TUvsAW is one of those novels.
It’s definitely a story to read for its emotional rather than logical impact. As I’ve said above, there is a sense of unreality around some of the events but not enough to pull me out of the story.
Extence is a strong writer. Alex Woods feels like a unique and powerful character and as a narrator had me laughing and crying.
Extence’s storytelling sense is strong. He has Alex skim events without you feeling cheated and slows down at the right places. In that sense it reminded me of The Song of Achilles, where Miller focuses on the emotions and pulls into the Iliad as needed and so does Extence.
Despite the occasional fuzziness of world outside the bubble of the story it’s a tale well worth telling and reading. It’s also one that makes a cross-over novel for adults and children alike and I’m curious to see that Gavin Extence writes next.