Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenzby
Review by Joe Thompson
Marvelling over the beautiful cover and beguiling title, I bought this book on impulse and, honestly, was not prepared for what came next.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Ari, a 15 year old boy who holds himself aloof whilst struggling to work himself out. Through a collection of memories, diary entries, letters and conversations, Ari’s world unfolds with a meticulously paced cadence.
Ari has an older brother in prison about whom he knows nothing and about whom nothing is said. He has a hard time talking about how this makes him feel. He can talk to his Mum, but stumbles often into the silence of her denial, and his father left his voice back in Vietnam.
At the pool one day, Ari meets Dante. Articulate, smart, kind Dante, who wants to teach Ari how to swim. The two boys form an immediate friendship and, together, begin to discover one of life’s first mysteries: laughter.
Dante doesn’t live in a mean world like Ari does. He loves art and poetry and literature with a capital L, and soon introduces Ari to his unique perspective on the universe. To Ari’s street-wise guardedness, Dante brings a fierce honesty and openness, which lands him more than once in danger.
Though different, the two boys acknowledge each other in their own way, and Sáenz’s writing here is neither clichéd nor contrived. A telephone conversation filled with awkward silence, or a half-drawn sketch one boy makes of the other, brings sharp focus to the depth of feeling between the two. This novel is a stunning example of “show, don’t tell”.
Through Dante, Ari uncovers the secrets of the universe, leading him to the revelation at the end of the book which was, for me, just pure joy to read.