The Universe versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence

The Universe versus Alex WoodsThis is a very important book.

That was all I could think when I finished reading it. It tackles such a vital subject with humour and compassion and just the right level of emotion that I think everyone should read it. Sadly it was wasted on me since I am already a firm believer in what this book stands for.

Unfortunately much as I detest spoilers it’s impossible to talk about what the message of the book without giving part of the story away. I’m not sure it’s of absolute importance if I reveal this fact, the outcome is revealed on page 1 but it’s the way the story reaches that conclusion that I want to talk about. Personally I don’t feel that knowing what I’m going to reveal would have stopped me reading the book, it probably would have made me read it sooner but if you think it might spoil things for you then know this – this is an excellent book, the characters are wonderfully drawn and the friendship between Alex and Mr Peterson is improbable but heartwarming. Extence leads you gently through the story with a wry wit which gives his writing a lift that makes the book easy to read and as informative as it is emotional.

Now stop reading.

I mean it, stop now.

This is a story about assisted suicide. It’s an issue many people would shy away from but one that has become increasingly important in recent years. (The last book I read, Lost At Sea by Jon Ronson, contained a newspaper story about a BBC journalist who (falsely) confessed to the mercy killing of his dying partner in 2010.)

In the book we are first introduced to Alex when he is stopped entering Dover from Calais with the ashes of Mr Peterson on the front seat and a bag of marijuana in the glove box. We then go back in time to when Alex is 10 and an improbable event makes him a  minor celebrity. The story then proceeds relatively slowly through the next seven years of Alex’s life and his friendship with the aforementioned Mr Peterson. I won’t talk much about that because I’ve already given some of the story away and I want to leave you some surprises.

It is when Mr Peterson becomes ill that the story really takes off and the real meat of the matter begins. For anyone who is unaware, it is a crime in the UK to assist someone to commit suicide whatever the person’s physical or mental state and however clearly they have expressed their wishes. It is a crime which carries a maximum prison term of 14 years.

However, a few hundred miles away in Switzerland it is another story. In Switzerland as long as a person is deemed to be of sound mind and to make the decision independently and in full possession of the facts, it is perfectly legal for someone to provide the method and assistance they need to take their own life. There is a clinic called Dignitas which offers this service to foreign nationals and according to Wikipedia they have helped over 1,000 people to die including 180 British citizens (as of March 2012).

As you can imagine, this is a hugely emotive subject and one which firmly divides opinion. In the book, Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a degenerative, terminal illness which dooms him to a painful death unable to walk, speak or even swallow. It if a not a fate he wants to face and who can blame him for that? It is with the help and friendship of Alex that he is able to face living his final months safe in the knowledge that when the time comes that he can no longer go on, he will be able to travel to Zurich and end his life in a comfortable fashion and at a time of his own choosing.

Alex struggles with this as anyone would but he has a strength of character that allows him to see that this is the most reasonable course of action for his friend and that granting this wish is far from betraying him.

The trip to Switzerland and what happens there is written with such a sensitive touch that it is deeply moving and it upset me greatly. Not because Mr Peterson dies, he is always going to die. But because he dies WELL. Something which so many people in my country and around the world are denied. I don’t mean to use this blog as a soapbox to shout about my opinions on this matter but I have seen death and it is not pretty.

It is a dehumanising, painful process that robs the dying of peace, comfort and dignity and robs the grieving of their memories. When you have seen the face of someone dying you can never unsee it and whatever memories you have will be forever tainted by that image. That is why I support assisted suicide/euthanasia and why I feel this book is so important. It describes the entire process of Mr Peterson’s death with a detached view which is not intended to shock or to lecture, it just presents the facts.

That isn’t to say there’s no emotion, there is plenty but it comes later. Alex is a very calm person and as narrator he does not allow his emotions to get in the way the facts, it’s what makes him the perfect man for the job.

I was obviously aware that the end of the book would be sad and it was (I was sitting on a station platform and the announcer came to check on me, I think he was worried I was about to do something stupid) but at the same time it was not depressing. It was right.

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2 responses to “The Universe versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence

  1. Pingback: 2013 storified. | Books on the Tube

  2. Pingback: Farewell 2013, it’s been interesting | Books on the Tube

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