Exchange is a teen/YA novel by Paul Magrs, about a sixteen year old boy called Simon whose parents untimely death leads him to have to live with his aged grandparents in a claustrophobically small bungalow, taking solace only in reading.
Simon bonds with his grandmother over books, and they begin to spend every Saturday hunting the second hand shops for new reading material. One day they come across a bookshop called The Great Book Exchange, and an encounter with the owner leads to their lives changing in unexpected ways.
I really wanted to like this book. The synopsis is so promising, and it starts very strongly. I felt that at the beginning of the book there were hints of magical realism or fantasy elements that could have taken this book in a very different way than it actually plays out. I was surprised when it stayed resolutely in the here and now.
Even so, it could have been a powerful story. Ebbing and flowing through the tale are questions and ideas about books and their power both to give a person comfort and escape, but also to allow them to slip away from the real world and ignore things which really need to be resolved. I thought these elements of the book were incredibly interesting, and if this was being taught in a school, or discussed as a book club choice I would love to know what other readers thoughts were about these kind of points.
As it is, I felt myself really disappointed that the plot doesn’t really come up with any satisfactory conclusions at all. The ending, in particular I thought was really weak. The last quarter of the book seemed very rushed, and some promising strands of story were either abandoned or ‘tidied’ away. I was particularly frustrated that the enigmatic character of Terrance, the book shop owner, was given so little space in the book after being built up in the first half of the book as someone with a mysterious back story who could really have come into his own in lots of ways as the book progressed.
I also felt that the character of Simon gets short changed rather. His transformation from anxious, repressed teenager with unresolved issues over his parents death, to ‘normal’ seems very rushed and unsatisfactory.
I recommend the book for children aged twelve and up. It is more of a girls’ than a boys’ book, despite the male protagonist. The subject matter of the transformative power of books and the redemptive story of Simon’s grandmother is not something I can see myself being able to sell to most boy readers as something they’d be particularly gripped by.
I would say that it is suitable for children younger than twelve, except there is a section in the book where Simon confronts his grandfather while he is poring over his vintage collection of glamour magazines that would need some explaining to younger children, particularly as they crop up again as a major plot point later in the book. It’s not that what is written about them is particularly graphic. It isn’t, but it will inevitably provoke questions to parents/teachers that you have to be comfortable with answering.