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A story that begins at its ending, with a seventeen-year-old boy called Alex, being arrested at customs for trying to re-enter his home country with a dead man on his passenger seat! The suspense is built up by the weird situation Alex finds himself in, when the reader starts to question why the interrogators are more interested in the marijuana in Alex’s glove compartment than they are in the deceased.
Time shifts, and the rest of the book, The Universe Versus Alex Woods, takes the reader back to Alex’s childhood and details a strong friendship that Alex forges with an elderly man called Mr Peterson. Alex is a bit of loner, and Mr Peterson a Vietnam War survivor and Amnesty International supporter. Alex finds a humanity in Mr Peterson, sadly lacking in some of his bully-boy peers, as the two work together writing letter to convicts ‘wrongly imprisoned – on spurious charges’ (p.120).
Serious issues, such as the bullying and also of terminal illness, are treated with sensitivity and humour by the author, Gavin Extence, and I particularly enjoyed the following analogy between prisoners and school students:
‘They were good people who’d been locked away and denied their most basic human rights. They weren’t allowed to act according to their consciences or even to express their opinions without fear of persecution and physical reprisals – although Mr Peterson doubted very much that I could imagine what that was like. I told Mr Peterson that since I went to secondary school, I though I could imagine it fairly well.’ (p.120)
Mr Peterson provides Alex with an alternative world, an escape, albeit temporarily, from the realities of a bog-standard-one-fits-all education, in which the differences that make us all human are often quashed. So it seems fitting when, in turn, Alex, pumped up on ‘adrenaline’, assists his friend in escaping from the confines of a hospital ward staffed by humourless nurses.
Maybe you’ve worked out for yourself, by now, how the beginning of the story marries up with the ending, or maybe you haven’t. Either way, then this book should be next on your agenda, as I’ve only revealed a very small sample of all the laughs in store!
Copyright owned by Jay Cool, July 2019