Author : Gavin Extence
Genre : Fiction
Publisher : Hodder & Stoughton
Unpredictable, genre-defying, multi-layered. And always entertaining.
I’M sure authors don’t like being compared to other authors – it smacks of a lack of creativity, usually. However, in the case of Gavin Extence, being compared to Mark Haddon cannot be a bad thing.
While Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Versus Alex Woods, is certainly not a Haddon knock-off, admittedly there are shades of Haddon-esque influence, in particular from Haddon’s award-winning The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (2003).
When the novel opens, Alex Woods, the titular protagonist, initially comes across as a typical teenager. He is 17, bored with his existence, wants adventure and is in search of something to quell his boredom and give his existence some meaning.
The search for meaning, the thirst for adventure and an “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude contribute to the opening pages of the novel.
Our hero is making his way back to Britain from an extended trip on the continent. Extence does not waste time in informing his audience that Alex is stopped by customs in Dover with 113gm of marijuana and an urn full of ashes sitting next to him, and soon has an entire nation in an uproar over his supposed crimes.
While the customs officers scramble to figure out what to do with Alex, our protagonist remains calm, confident in the belief that he has not done anything wrong. To Alex, the marijuana and the urn full of ashes (both of which are explained through flashbacks later on in the novel) are mere props that happen to be illegal substances. (“What’s a bit of marijuana going to do to anyone?” he innocently asks.)
In contrast to our first impression of Alex, Extence provides the first of many twists in his beautifully layered novel. Through flashbacks, for instance, we learn that Alex has had an unconventional upbringing, having been raised by a clairvoyant single mother which caused more damage than anything else – his mother was never able to warn Alex of the bullies that beat him up.
Alex also knows that the most dubious and random events can happen in life – he has the scars to prove it.
As the novel progresses, the novel’s time frame spans five years, Alex from age 12 to 17. At different junctures in his life, improbable incidents occur, causing those scars, both physical and emotional. Though some of the incidents seem far-fetched and border on the ridiculous, they do provide lashings of humour.
Things take a change for the funnier when Alex meets reclusive widower Mr Peterson, who teaches Alex a thing or a dozen about life and about making the right choices. (“The choice you make today may not necessarily agree with you – or anyone else for that matter – tomorrow, but what the hell, you’ve made it and you learn to live with the consequences, be they good or crap,” Mr Peterson tells Alex.)
Written in the first person throughout, Alex is the novel’s voice and heart, sharing his thoughts and observations on life, death, and the causes and effects of one’s behaviour.
Through Alex, Extence explores the idea of seeing every situation and the resulting consequence through to the very end, come hell or high water.
While Extence does explore some rather heavy issues – death and the meaning of life, anyone? – the author manages to phrase his thoughts in a way that engages the reader. Such explorations can fall flat in a mess of psychobabble that goes nowhere, but they don’t in this case. Kudos to Extence for not taking himself too seriously, as the end result is both touching and thought-provoking and not at all preachy.
I believe part of the success of Extence’s exploration of heavy subjects is due to the author’s simple manner of writing. He may spend more than two chapters exploring death and its afterlife but his thoughts are filtered through the mind of a teenager, which makes the author’s ideas and concepts easy to comprehend. Plus, Extence is not without humour – Alex’s sarcastic insights about death make the subject more laughable than depressing.
Within the first three chapters, a variety of genres crossed this reviewer’s mind. With a title like The Universe Versus Alex Woods, one would categorise the novel as New Age fiction with a slant towards psychology. However, with the opening chapter putting Alex at loggerheads with customs, the novel could also be a coming of age tale. As the novel progresses, there are also elements of a mystery/thriller. Like Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, Extence’s The Universe Versus Alex Woodsis layered and defies pigeonholing.
Unpredictable, genre-defying and multi-layered, this is a beautifully crafted novel.