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Meteors and Dignity
on 18 December 2016
"I'm saying that death is the easiest thing in the world. It's the dying that's terrible." Alex Woods mouths these words about three-quarters into the novel, and they just about sum up most of the novel. I say most, because strangely enough, what takes centrestage for the first part of the novel is the fact that Alex Woods is a very special boy, who survives a direct meteorite hit (no kidding) with a brain injury that somehow stokes his interest in neurology and astrophysics.
With such a literally out-of-this-world setup for his main character, Extence turns next to the figure of American ex-Nam veteran living in Alex's little English village in Somerset, Mr Peterson, who forms an unexpected relationship with Alex, the latter something of an outcast and bully victim in school, his tabloid-star status notwithstanding. The novel then takes a deliberate and unexpected turn, and leads Alex to spout the above-mentioned lines. But it turns out that the second part of the novel is where the real story is, and on reflection, his meteor-boy episode seems like an unnecessary sensationalist sideshow. Given Extence's sure-handed mastery of weighty issues concerning the dignity of life and death, which is impressive for a young debut novelist, I felt there was no real need for the attempted wow-factor.
Nonetheless, what ensues is a touching yet funny account of Alex's and Mr Peterson's close friendship, in which Kurt Vonnegut plays a significant part - you just have to read the novel to find out how. The comedy sometimes stumbles but the story succeeds, largely in part because it is told through Alex's perspective, and Extence conveys Alex's earnest desire to do what is right in his attempt to explain away his fear by appealing to science and logic, masking his bewilderment and uncertainty.