Genre: Science Fiction
Release Date: 5th March 2015
Publisher: Electric Monkey
Add it: Goodreads
Once again blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith tells the story of 15-year-old Ariel, a refugee from the Middle East who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel's story of his summer at a boys' camp for tech detox is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century. Oh, and there’s also a depressed bionic reincarnated crow.
The Alex Crow is a fantastically weird and fun book that still managed to make me cry several times. I mean, that’s not hard to do considering I once cried at a Lloyds TSB advert but the point still stands; Andrew Smith is really good at making the reader cry even while laughing.
The Alex Crow tells the story of several different characters, and while I usually prefer a singular narration Andrew Smith is one of the few authors, in my experience, who can juggle multiple narratives without his stories losing momentum and becoming too convoluted. Among the characters that have POVs in this novel are Ariel, a refugee from a wartorn country who absolutely broke my heart, Lenny, ‘the melting man’ who is undergoing a rather dramatic mental breakdown with some very worrying side-effects, to put it lightly, and a woman who puts forward an academic argument for a world without me. I would like to subscribe to her newsletter. It is one of my favourite aspects of Smith’s novels to watch all these vastly differing stories gradually fold back into main story; I love his technique, the connections between the characters, the unique voices of the characters that so brilliantly separate each POV from the other. At no point in an Andrew Smith will you ever be confused as to who is narrating any given part of a novel and that is a rare skill in an author.
I loved the story, which on the surface takes place at a summer camp for boys; I honestly continue to find it so amusing how graphic Smith’s novels are. I have known teenage boys, and the teenage boys in Smith’s books are so true to life – they’re obsessed with sex, constantly talk about masturbation and crack dumb jokes all the time. His frank take on teenage sexuality and masturbation are not only funny and graphic, but important. It is important for teenagers to be able to read books that accurately sexual experiences – do you know I have read so much YA in these past few years but Andrew Smith is one of the only authors to talk frankly about how messy sex is, how lubrication is a necessary aspect of not only sex but masturbation, how boys can and should keep tissues on hand to clean themselves up after masturbating. These kind of things are so often glossed over in YA (adult novels are also conveniently spare on these details but will go to great lengths to describe breasts and vaginas…please save me) and it does nothing to encourage a discourse between teenagers and adults about sex.
I’ve gone off on a tangent but anyway, while the boys go about their daily routines at the summer camp friendships are formed and we learn more about these characters. Ariel’s own narration moves between his memories, which are horrific, and his present life. Lenny’s POV is bizarre; his narration depicts his mental state, which is to say it is all over the place – Lenny is schizophrenic so much of his narration includes the voices he hears. He is a very uncomfortable character whose head to be in. I mean, there is a lot going on this novel but so much of it exists in the memories of the characters – Ariel, for example, takes us from a refrigerator to a refugee camp to a completely new country, and all the while we see his relationships develop as the story progresses. There is also another layer to the story that brings a new whole level of weird to it; crows who have been artificially made and thus have formed suicidal tendencies, technologies which involve implanting chips in children, failed experiments that fall apart rather spectacularly…and yet it all makes sense. I love Andrew Smith’s weird brain a lot, you guys.
Okay, so, the characters. Ariel is precious; he is an introspective boy who has been through a lot. I loved his voice, his extraordinary courage, his bond with his brother and how his narration felt ultimately optimistic. This is an uplifting novel in many ways, despite the terrible things that are described and I loved that. It was the boys at the summer camp who made this book for me; their friendship was sweet even as they bonded over the ordinary teenage experiences of rebelling, drinking and burgeoning sexuality.
If I could make everyone read Andrew Smith, I would do it. He is one of the few authors I’d readily recommend to just about anyone and while I think I still prefer Grasshopper Jungle, The Alex Crow is still a brilliant novel that just hits all of my buttons. Weird, funny and ultimately about the human condition, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward immensely to my next read by this author.