It’s time to look at all that’s good, sad and quirky about The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge, a new release middle grade romp that features science fiction, science fact and lots of sciencey faffing about with bananas and wayward cats. We received a copy of this one from Allen & Unwin for review after eyeing it covetously on various “coming soon” lists of middle grade fiction. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
When Albie’s mum dies, it’s natural he should wonder where she’s gone. His parents are both scientists and they usually have all the answers. Dad mutters something about Albie’s mum being alive and with them in a parallel universe. So Albie finds a box, his mum’s computer and a rotting banana, and sends himself through time and space to find her…
As UK middle grade reads go, this one is quite original. If you discount the oft-used “child coping with the death of a parent” storyline, there is plenty here that goes beyond the usual bounds of middle-grade fare. We’ll discuss those bits more in the “quirky” section though.
Albie is a character who will resonate with many readers; a young man trying hard to honour his mother’s memory, while his father just works to forget. There are a number of competing themes going on here including family realignment after the loss of a parent, dealing with grief, finding one’s purpose and challenging accepted boundaries of thought. The pace of the book is even, with an episodic plot that follows Albie as he hops from one world to another. I particularly enjoyed the character of Alba and her interaction with Albie and would have loved to have seen more interactions like this throughout the book.
There was something missing throughout this book for me and I suspect that the missing something was a strong supporting character. For much of the book Albie goes it on his own, so the narration comprises a lot of Albie telling us what’s going on or relating his thoughts without much to break this up. A bit more banter between Albie and …someone…would have made the book a bit pacier and more engaging in my opinion, and allowed for a bit of unexpectedness in a plot where the reader suspects everything will turn out in the end.
I also had a problem with the straightforward way in which Albie manages to solve all the problems of inter-dimensional travel without much effort. The plot is full of complex, nebulous scientific ideas that even proper scientists have trouble with, but Albie’s scientific problems – such as getting from one world to another and how to get home again – are solved by accident or dumb luck. I felt that the author couldn’t quite decide whether this was supposed to be first and foremost a book about science and parallel universes, or a book about grief and personal growth, so left both plotlines a little underdeveloped in order to manage such big ideas in a book for young readers.
I can safely say that this is the first time I have encountered such a focus on science in a middle grade fiction offering. Throughout the story many theories, experiments and facts are brought up – including, but not limited to, the Large Hadron Collider and Shrodinger’s Cat – and this will really appeal to those young readers who can’t get enough of science fact and how it might be imagined as science fiction. I can imagine that after reading this book at least one kid (or adult!) will grab a bunch of balloons and their younger sibling’s favourite toy and attempt to launch the two into space.
Overall I enjoyed this book but not nearly as much as I expected I would. I was hoping for a little more challenge and struggle in Albie’s journey toward healing, and a little more zany danger in his romp through the unknown universe. It is certainly an ambitious undertaking to attempt to blend high level scientific concepts with the enormity of a child’s grief, but for me it didn’t quite hit the mark. I certainly enjoyed it while I was reading, but I don’t think it will be one of those books that makes it into the regular rotation of books I recommend to others.
Unless they’re looking for a middle grade read featuring cats that are simultaneously dead and alive.
Until next time,