30 December 2013
THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence
I’m quite proud of myself – I’ve managed to do a lot of reading this year. Many authors I speak to don’t. They claim either not to have the time or that they don’t want their own prose to become infected by someone else’s. Personally speaking there are some authors I would willingly become infected by. In the New Year I may talk about one or two of them but for now I want to look back at 2013.
Three books immediately stand out for me. Firstly, an old favourite, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates which I re-read on the plane going to Chicago (it’s a long flight). But I can hardly name that as my Book of the Year for 2013 as I would probably name it as my Book of the Year every year.
Secondly, A TOWN LIKE ALICE by Nevil Shute, a book I read for the first time in Bruges in May. You may remember that I blogged about it then, finding that I couldn’t put it down - to the extent that when my wife and I got into bed at night to read and she subsequently turned out the light, I was forced to go and sit in the loo in order to continue reading it.
But these are things we know (both these books have been around a while) and the purpose of a Book of the Year should be to introduce something new. So my choice for 2013 is THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence.
I first met Gavin Extence at a booklaunch in Waterstones in York. He attracted quite a following and I naturally wondered why. I met him again a few months later at Wakefield Literary Festival. Another following. This time I discovered that he is not only a remarkably nice young man but that he has also written a remarkably good book. No wonder he's popular.
His followers are predominantly women. That's no surprise in literary circles as the vast majority of readers are female, a fact prospective authors would do well to recognise. You will guess from this that his book is neither an SAS thriller nor an historical naval drama but it's rather about character and relationships - two compelling characters (Alex Woods and Mr Peterson) and a binding relationship. It's also about assisted suicide and so it has a strong and contemporary theme.
These three things alone (character, relationships and theme) are likely to make it a good book but then there's the writing - and that's good too. Mr Extence's prose flows easily across the page but is never in danger of becoming poetic or flowery. A good story, well told - what more could you want?
I've heard it said that if you enjoyed THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME you will also enjoy THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS . And so you might, but not for the obvious reason. True, Alex is a 'challenged' teenager ('gay' as he chooses to describe himself - but not in the sexual sense) as is Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident, but Alex's disability (epilepsy) is not central to the book as is Christopher's autism. Alex will always be an outsider at school, epilepsy or not. What makes both these books enjoyable are those three essential ingredients of character, plot and theme - ie. the basics.
If I were to pick a couple of nits with The Universe it would be these. Firstly, the word 'blocky' which I had never heard before but which Mr Extence used repeatedly until it got on my nerves. But far more importantly, his need to 'book-end' the story by starting with Alex's arrival at Dover Customs. This admittedly makes for an interesting and engaging beginning - what is he doing there? where has he come from? and why has he got a stash of marijuana and several hundred pounds in cash? We would naturally like to know. But in terms of timeline, this part of the story belongs to the ending - what is it doing here? The answer, I suspect, is the modern requirement to provide an opening that is designed to ensnare the reader. I shouldn't complain, I did it myself in BIRDS OF THE NILE, but who was I trying to please? Myself, my agent, my publisher or the reader? One wonders ...
But none of these things detract from what is an extremely good book. I know Mr Extence is hard at work on another. The test of his ability as a writer will be if he can produce something equally as compelling but in a different voice. If he can, I will certainly be interested in reading it.