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At the Edge of the Universe

At the Edge of the UniverseAt the Edge of the Universe, Shaun David Hutchinson
Simon Pulse, February 2017
Reviewed from ARC
Two stars

2017 is zipping along at a brisk pace and it’s hard to believe that it’s already time to talk Printz. This time last year, I was reviewing Shaun David Hutchinson’s We Are the Ants. Hutchinson’s latest, At the Edge of the Universe is a spiritual twin to his previous novel and today we’ll see if it has what it takes to be a Printz contender.

Part of growing up means accepting that the universe is vast and you are certainly not at the center of it. This is especially hard to internalize when you’re a teen and every day presents new challenges that seem to consume your life. It can feel like everything is closing in on you. For Oswald Pinkerton, the disappearance of his boyfriend, Tommy, supersedes all other responsibilities; school, family, friends, none are as important as finding Tommy and more importantly, discovering why no one else remembers he even existed. When he’s not trying to find Tommy, Oswald (or Ozzie as he’s more frequently called) is observing the shrinking of the universe; another phenomenon that only he sees. As in We Are the Ants, Shaun David Hutchinson once again weaves an emotional story into a high-concept structure.

Hutchinson is deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the novel’s core dilemma. It’s very possible that the universe is shrinking and Tommy’s existence was erased to everyone except Ozzie. But it’s equally plausible that it’s his unbearable grief after a difficult break up that creates a reality in his mind in which it’s easier to believe that Tommy never existed at all rather than the reality that the love of his life decided he needed to move on.

2017 has been chock full of sad stories so far. Really really sad stories (and we’ll cover many of them this year) about death and trauma. At the Edge of the Universe stands out among other stories of teen grief not only because of the sci-fi lite premise, but because Ozzie’s path to move on and accept a world without Tommy unfolds gradually. It’s this slow quality that may also keep the book out of Printz contention because the plot meanders while we wait for Ozzie to break free of his emotional paralysis and indecision. The conflicts are laid out well, but in between each plot development there’s a lot of reiteration of the same conversations and ideas that don’t necessarily add to the character development.

The secondary characters include Lua, Ozzie’s gender fluid friend, Dustin, a transracial adoptee slacker, and Calvin, who helps bring Ozzie out of his despair. Each comes with a backstory that could sustain its own novel but they aren’t quite filled out enough to feel whole in this story. There are a few major plot points which feel rushed because there wasn’t enough time with the character involved. This doesn’t have a huge impact on the overall enjoyment of the novel but with regard to Printz contention a major discussion would have to be had about whether the characters are deliberately thinner because the story is written through Ozzie’s perspective or if the writing is flawed.

Despite the issues that may keep it out of Printz conversation, this novel has stayed with me. For one thing, Hutchinson has hidden Doctor Who easter eggs throughout the text (I won’t give any away because it’s much more fun to find them on your own) and the quickest way to my heart—aside from food—is Doctor Who. Aside from that highly personal reason, I think the book’s sticking power is due to Hutchinson’s subtle approach to the high-concept. Grief made literal in the form of a shrinking universe could easily go off the rails, but chapter headings and occasional check-ins from Ozzie prevent the concept from overwhelming the heart of the story. What shines through isn’t the question of whether or not the universe was actually shrinking—it’s the deep empathy you feel for Ozzie as he fights to feel and remember and move on despite the edges of the universe crashing in on him.

How about you? With only two stars, has Hutchinson’s book slipped off of your radar? Let us know what you think in the comments!

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. An enjoyable book, but not without flaws. At nearly 500 pages, I think the book could easily have been shrunk significantly. Ozzie’s endless waffling was part of the point and clearly a stylistic choice rather than just clumsy writing, but I felt it dragged the narrative down.

    I was also a little troubled by Calvin’s portrayal. Ozzie refers to him as “broken” several times, which always rubs me the wrong way. Sexual abuse is serious and can often lead to self-harm or other risky behavior, but it doesn’t have to. It seemed like there was an accepted inevitability to Calvin’s breakdown, that “of course” this is how he would react, and that the entirety of the rest of his life is ruined, which is not a message I think is great to sexual abuse victims. Now, granted, the real-world Calvin was the one to turn the teacher in, and appears (on the surface, to a casual acquaintance) to be coping much more healthily with everything that happened, but that’s not really explored.

    I’m surprised that Tommy’s father’s abuse has managed to go unnoticed for so long. Ozzie’s parents are clearly self-involved, but they’ve never noticed the obvious bruises all over their son’s boyfriend? The bruises are rarely in hidden places, usually the face, which makes it more difficult to explain away to teachers and authority figures.

    The final explanation for the universe shrinking was a bit of a let down as well. It resonated with the themes and whatnot, but …it just seemed self-indulgent and whiny to me.

    • Joy Piedmont says

      You make an excellent point re: Calvin. Sexual abuse, particularly the abuse that Calvin suffers at the hands of a trusted adult needs more space to breathe and it did feel like Hutchinson could’ve done a better job if Calvin was the protagonist. As is, we’re left with little to go on which leaves room for the portrayal of him as “broken” to become the dominate way that we see him.

  2. The shrinking of the universe was a fantastic conceit and I looked forward to those passages. But like time travel there were some paradoxes that bothered me as the world became smaller and what it is that the characters would have known about as parts disappeared. Overall, I enjoyed it, but “We are the Ants” was a stronger book.

  3. Brenda Martin says

    This one wasn’t exactly a slog for me, but like Joy mentioned, did it ever meander. I do appreciate Hutchinson’s sentence-level writing and thematic choices. It was just longer than I felt it needed to be, even though none of what the author explored felt particularly excessive.

    Alys commented about the length. I don’t know if it’s the editors who need to focus their authors on book-length, but tightening this up (even by cutting out some strong material) would have resulted in a stronger product and what I believe would be a wider readership. Just looking at the size of the book on the shelf is daunting.

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