The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

A review of the contemporary literary novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence.

It’s always nice to be surprised by how good a story can be, and Gavin Extence’s first novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods didn’t fail to disappoint. This quirky, heartwarming and at times blackly comic novel follows the eponymous Alex Woods, a boy who found fame for surviving a freak accident in which he was hit on the head by a meteorite as a child. Given the celestial nature of his childhood trauma, Alex is a thoughtful, erudite and nerdy chap, pondering big philosophical questions and finding himself fascinated by science.

At its heart, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is yet another coming-of-tale, following Alex as he forms a ‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’-style bond with an elderly, cantankerous American called Mr. Peterson who helps him weather the storm of his teenage years by the wisdom he imparts. I say wisdom, but Mr. Peterson is very plain-speaking, he tells it like it is – he’s a widower, but is relatively cynical about the world and its wiles, encouraging Alex to come out of his shell and not let others get the better of him.

Alex’s life lessons are helped by a book group he hosts in which he develops an obsession with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, a sci-fi literary master of blackly comic social commentary, an influence which runs throughout Extence’s book. My only criticism of The Universe Versus Alex Woods (and it’s a minor one) is the notion of US Vietnam War veteran living in the English countryside did feel contrived, as if it was thrown in by Extence with film rights in mind rather than a genuine narrative choice. If they ever adapt this novel into a movie, it’s kind of obvious they’d cast a big name American actor to make some money at the box office, but it’s not like this story doesn’t merit film treatment.

In fact, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a solid work of a contemporary fiction; funny and warm, intelligent and accessible, the perfect blend of everything most people yearn for from a good read. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the ending of this novel packs a real punch. I won’t spell it out but let’s just say if you’re familiar with the campaigning Sir Terry Pratchett spearheaded before he died, then it tackles this subject with deftness, appropriateness and, believe it or not, good humour. I look forward to reading more of Gavin Extence’s work, as he’s still a very young writer and looks set to have a promising future ahead of him. So, if you ever find The Universe Versus Alex Woods on a bookshelf, make sure you pick it up. It’s a delightful read, in spite of its occasionally dark subject matter, which is the most you can ask for from a book such as this. Top marks from me.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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