Book Reviews

The Empathy Problem – Gavin Extence – Audible Book Review

The Empathy Problem HB

The Empathy Problem – Gavin Extence – Audible Book Review

In an impressive article for The Guardian newspaper of 4th March 2015 (available here), Gavin Extence spoke of the diagnosis a few years previously of his bipolar disorder. Though it has affected his life and at times disrupts his writing, he has come to the realisation that “if I could get rid of these fluctuations entirely and maintain a steady state of mental ‘health’, would I want to? And my conclusion is no.”

The personal struggle he has faced to reach a kind of equilibrium is mirrored by the central characters in each of his three novels. His début work “The Universe Versus Alex Wood” is the moving but very funny tale of Alex, hit by a meteorite as a child, he develops an obsessive interest in all things scientific. Reminiscent at times of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”, Alex is forced to rethink his oblique approach to life when he forms an unlikely friendship with a terminally ill war veteran who lives nearby. What in other hands could be grim or depressing, is turned by Extence into a book that is engaging and hugely entertaining.

Abby, the main character in his second book, “The Mirror World of Melody Black”,  falls into a depression following the accidental discovery of her neighbour’s body. Extence treats her mental breakdown with great sensitivity and wry humour, taking the reader on a journey very different from what you might expect from a book on this subject.

His latest novel, “The Empathy Problem”, is set in London during the Occupy Campaign in 2015. In the opening chapter, the central character, Gabriel Vaughn, tells us that he has been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour and has just a short time to live. Gabriel, a successful hedge-fund manager has, until now, led a selfish, purely materialistic life, defined by professional ambition and the money markets. His only personal contacts have been with prostitutes whom he meets through online dating services.

In an early episode, when he is forced to take public transport for the first time in years, we see how much his privileged existence has left him out of touch with everyday life. It is when he is travelling on the Tube that he breaks down and realises that there is something wrong not only with his lifestyle, but also with his health. Unwilling to tell his colleagues of his condition, he tries to continue as before but gradually he becomes aware of other possibilities in his life and we follow him as he starts on a journey towards a fuller life. As in his other books, Extence does not take the obvious path and although there is perhaps more sentimentality in this book than in his previous ones we never lose interest in his characters.

All three books are available from Audible but this one, read by Jack Hawkins, (no, not the great film star from the 1950s and 60s!) is not helped by its reader. Hawkins’ monotonous delivery flattens, rather than breathes life into the story. Extence’s books don’t deal in broad gestures. They are quiet, subtle books underpinned with humour and a generous view of humanity. Hawkins’s reading makes this one sound dull and he seems to miss the nuance and humour in the text.

The audiobook is available from and lasts 9h 50mins

Categories: Book Reviews, Books, Header

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