‘It was my dad who gave me the idea of using quantum physics to find my mum.’ The writer of this novel’s first sentence is Albie Bright, in Year 6 at the village school in Clackthorpe, once a mining community where now the pit is used as a safe site by ‘scientists searching for the secrets of the universe’. Curious, and maybe confident, readers around Albie’s age might well be hooked into the story by the challenge of such an opening; it would be a pity if less assured readers were deterred, since although quantum physics, the Large Hadron Collider and parallel universes – to say nothing of Schrodinger’s Cat – are central to this book, so also are classrooms, School Science Fairs, Grandads, kids who are spiteful prima donnas, bullies, best mates and so on. Albie’s longing to find his mum is clarified in the next sentence: ‘She died two weeks ago.’
Albie is indeed bright, which is just as well since he’s able to write about quantum physics et al in such an accessible, humorous and sometimes self-deprecating way that the rest of us can share the astonishing journeys on which he embarks. Like his dad, his mum was a world-class scientist. Both had worked at CERN before his mother’s cancer brought them home for medical treatment and work in the underground laboratories. They named their son ‘Albert Stephen’ after Einstein and Hawking. Dad’s talent for popularising led him into TV series, writing books for kids, and circuiting the globe. He may be ‘The Man Who Can Explain Everything’ but from Albie’s perspective he’s never around to explain anything. Whereas his mum was a playful sharer – she’d listen to his questions such as ‘Why does cheese on toast always go stringy?’ and then investigate together rather than tell. Albie knows it sounds awful, but he confesses that “sometimes I wish it had been Dad who’d died instead of Mum”. Now dad is as lost as Albie, but he does try, and it’s when he’s doing his best to answer Albie’s urgent ‘Do you believe in heaven?’ that he gets into parallel worlds and quantum physics. So, Albie reasons, if he could somehow travel to these universes where things are the same but different, he might find Mum still alive in one of them.
Employing a banana, a laptop, a digital Geiger counter and a large cardboard box (and next-door’s feline bruiser Dylan as a test pilot), Albie travels to a series of alternative worlds. The changes vary – an extra planet on a poster above his bed or a couple of moons in a night sky. Albie meets differing versions of himself; in one world, there’s a malevolent Albie, and in another he’s herself not himself. Alba is a gentle, perceptive girl in a wheelchair who’s far more clued-up on quantum physics than he is. In another, his caring dad is working as a miner down a pit still producing coal. Often Albie gets caught up in frenetic adventures, behaving as he never would back home – after all, he’s not stopping long. So although he’s got two left feet in his own Clackthorpe, he takes to the dance floor with Alba in her chair at Victoria Barnes’s party in a hip-hop routine which gets all of Year 6 jerking robotically about the village hall, stealing 1st Prize from a furious Victoria. All of this is very deftly handled by Christopher Edge with a light comic touch, everything rooted in a Year 6 environment, Quantum Banana Theory and all.
On his final journey, he meets his mum, only to find that this world’s Albie had died within weeks of his birth. For mother and child, some resolution stems from both joy and grief. On his return, Albie realises his journeys have changed him in his own world. Alongside the Dad he now understands so much better, he thinks he’ll be able to cope. ‘All you can do is hope that you’ll find a way through’; in the book’s closing words, ‘Mum will always be there’.