“Sometimes when people ask you for a full explanation, you know damn well that’s the last thing they want. Really, they want you to give them a paragraph that confirms what they already think they know. They want something that will fit neatly into a box on a police statement form. And that can never be a full explanation.”
The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Alex Woods is odd, no doubt about it. We first meet him aged 17, where he is being arrested at Dover customs having scandalized the British media by returning to the country with an urn full of human ashes and 113g of marijuana. This is his second brush with celebrity, the first occurring when, at the age of ten the universe decides to mark him out as one of its more improbable inhabitants by sending a fragment of meteor through his bathroom ceiling which hits him on the head, leaving him with a permanent scar and epilepsy. But these incidents are not the story, or at least, they are only a part of it, in a tale of unlikely friendship, integrity and difficult choices.
I bought The Universe versus Alex Woods for my brother for Christmas when it first published in 2013 and it’s taken me this long to read it because other family members have kept swooping in like the book vultures they are before me. Nevertheless, it certainly merits the word of mouth hype that it’s received, both in my family and the wider world.
In Alex, Gavin Extence has created a character who is suitably naïve to form an unlikely friendship with an aged Vietnam veteran, but one who is precocious, irritating and stubborn enough to make it a friendship of equals. Likewise, Mr Peterson is grizzled and grizzly enough to the eyes of the young Alex, but with enough wry charm for the reader to appreciate and feel amusement at his burgeoning friendship with the bizarre child the universe has seemingly thrust upon him. Like any story about a socially awkward young boy with a big heart and an unusal friend, this is a book which could easily have become mawkish, but Gavin Extence has created a character sufficiently remote from the socially awkward stereotype to sweep aside the sugar-coating and tell this important and improbable story with warmth and good humour.
Definitely one to add to the reading list if you haven’t already.