JUNE READING: THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence
Initially I had this book pegged at 3 out of 5. It seemed a bit far fetched that a freak accident with a meteor could put an 11 year old boy onto the path of becoming a media sensation, geek freak, epileptic and all round weirdly over intelligent teenager. Oh, what's more with a mum who ran a business as a fortune teller. No wonder he was bottom of the pops at his local school. In addition, for about half of the book we are in plot development mode, with not a great deal happening, and unusually for me, I really did consider giving up and moving onto one of the many other books beckoning me to pick up.
But not long after half way, the book took a decidedly surprising and most interesting turn. The subject of assisted suicide is a political hot potato in our Western society with increasing numbers of people living with terminal illness. The burden, stress, and suffering this places onto the person with the illness and onto those who care for and love that person are impossible to quantify. Tie into this religious beliefs, the sanctity of life, the sanity of the ill person, the culpability of those doing the assisting, and we have a major ethical and moral dilemma on our hands. After all we don't let our animals suffer unnecessarily, so why should we let our loved ones.
The person in this novel who wishes to die is not our young protagonist Alex Woods, 17 at the time of his narration of the story, but an older man, Mr Issac Peterson. Mr Peterson is probably in his 60s, American, an ex-Vietnam vet with a damaged leg, who lives alone since his wife died a few years before from cancer. A most unlikely and special friendship develops between these two when Alex, in his early teens, meets up with Mr Peterson while trying to escape from a group of school bullies. Under Mr Peterson's guidance and friendship, Alex quickly finds his teenage world rapidly improving, he learns to deal with the bullies from school, and develops ways to keep his epilepsy under control. Things are on the up.
Then Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a debilitating illness with no prospect of a cure. After considerable research and soul searching, Mr Peterson decides assisted suicide is the only option, and the only place this is legal is in Switzerland. There is no doubt in Alex's mind, and in the mind of Mr Peterson that they are doing the right thing. And so the wheels are put in motion to enable Mr Peterson to die with dignity and self worth.
The second half of this book dives right into this fraught subject in a very open minded way. The author is obviously in favour of assisted suicide, but he sends his message without being inflammatory or judgmental of those not in favour. By using a teenage boy - idealistic, highly intelligent, having had his own share of pain - as his vehicle he has probably found the easiest path to convey his feelings on the matter.
I greatly enjoyed reading the last third of this book. This is not a subject people feel very comfortable talking about, but I found it handled in a very touching and meaningful way. And it has certainly got me thinking more about how we care for and treat people close to us who are terminally ill. Upgraded to 4 out of 5!