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At the Edge of the Universe
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.
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