An unusual friendship

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

Alex Woods is an unique young boy. It’s not that he is prime material for bullying because his single mum is a clairvoyant white witch who runs a new-age shop in Glastonbury, he has a much more bizarre claim to fame that has come to dominate his early life.

When Alex was ten, he was hit on the head by a 2.3kg meteor that came through the bathroom roof. He was in a coma for thirteen days, had brain surgery and a plate put in his head. No-one thought he would survive, but he did and was quite the celebrity for a while. It left him with epilepsy, but it didn’t dim his geekiness; and he did get a meteorite out of it. Alex has to learn coping strategies for his epilepsy, helped by his consultant, Dr Enderby…

I watched my breath. I counted to fifty. I named each of the planets and major moons in turn, starting at the sun and working my way out to the Kuiper Belt. I listed every character from The Simpsons I could think of. I remained calm and alert and banished any distractions into a separate corner of my mind and focused my attention like a laser. It was a very strange experience. I told Dr Enderby that it felt like Jedi training. Dr Enderby replied that it was like Jedi training. It was a form of mediation – a way of helping my brain to stay poised and peaceful.

Later, Alex is again running from the bullies, he hides in a greenhouse which gets smashed. It belongs to Mr Petersen, a reclusive widower and Vietnam veteran who’d settled in England. Instructed by his mother to help Mr Petersen as penance for getting the greenhouse broken, the gruff old soldier and the  teenager begin to strike up a friendship which is cemented by Mr P introducing Alex to the books of his favourite author – Kurt Vonnegut.

I don’t want to tell you any more of the story, because it’s rather brilliant, and if it sounds like a book you may like, you should discover it for yourselves.

The novel begins as a light-hearted tale of friendship – the young Alex has a slight hint of Adrian Mole about him. No prior knowledge of Kurt Vonnegut is needed, but anyone who does know him will chuckle when Alex reads Breakfast of Champions. (I too read this as a teenager from the library – had to hide it from my parents at the time, as it’s full of doodles of *ahem* ‘wide-open beavers’ amongst other more normal things. Now, decades later, I can’t remember the book – only those illustrations!)

Naturally, Mr Petersen becomes a father figure to Alex, and their relationship deepens, as does the tone of the novel. What started off as funny and quirky, takes on a serious tone as things happen. Throughout it all though, as he grows up, Alex retains his essential Alex-ness which, however heart-breaking things get, (which is very), makes him a loveable and fascinating companion.

If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, you will probably like Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Vs Alex Woods, as I did. (9/10)

* * * * *
I read an ARC received through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Pub Jan 31st by Hodder & Stoughton
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

11 thoughts on “An unusual friendship

  1. farmlanebooks says:

    I finished this last week and enjoyed it. I thought Alex was a wonderful character! Unfortunately I’m going to ruin your comparison as I didn’t like Harold Fry, but otherwise your review is spot on!

    • gaskella says:

      The comparisons with Harold Fry are mainly in the changing tenor of the narrative, from relatively light-hearted to more serious, but I’m glad you liked this one. 😉

  2. Alex says:

    Well, I loved ‘Harold Fry’ and this sounds like something I might want to recommend to my secondary teacher friends, so I’m definitely going to get hold of a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • gaskella says:

      The latter stages tackle a difficult subject handled really well – can’t say more without spoiling it. If you manage to read it, I’d love to know what you think.

  3. savidgereads says:

    Oooh I am really excited about this one now Annabel as it is on my TBR and I will have to give it a whirl. I didn’t fancy it too much when it arrived unsolicited, it didn’t sell itself to me for some reason, but now I do really want to read it. I wonder if it will make me want to read Kurt too, as I haven’t as yet.

    • gaskella says:

      Simon – If you ignore the ‘coming of age’ aspects and concentrate on the friendship it’s a wonderful book – very though-provoking towards the end. I loved it.

      Kurt is often wild and wacky metafiction he’s a philosopher masquerading as a comedian – his books aren’t long so you could give one a try. I should read some more of him. Reading Alex Woods might help you choose a starting place….

  4. Jenny says:

    This sounds really sweet! Also, is meteors falling and hitting people a real thing? I am not sure I can deal with that fear. Also…meteorite, right?

    • gaskella says:

      Apparently, they’re meteors (or meteoroids) until they hit the ground, then they’re meteorites. I found a whole website devoted to cataloging meteorite hits – and a few people have been hit over the years – but don’t worry, it’s not many! 🙂

Leave a Reply