The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

I bought this book from a secondhand bookshop in Cromford whilst on holiday. I didn’t know anything about it and I don’t read the backs of books as I often find they give too much away. I had seen it on other people’s bookshelves though, so I thought, ‘Why not?’

Once bought, it languished on my own bookshelf for three months. However I’m a compulsive book buyer so that’s only a couple of days in book years. Then I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for a couple of years and she recommended it in conversation. My response was, ‘It’s on my shelf but I bet it’s one of those I’ll have had for ages and then when I finally get round to reading it I won’t be able to believe I didn’t read it immediately.’ And, of course, it was.

The plot then, hopefully dodging spoilers. Ariel Manto is doing a PhD in thought experiment at an unnamed university, which she started after attending a lecture on an extremely rare and apparently cursed Victorian book called ‘The End of Mr Y’. A year after her supervisor disappeared, she is still researching when she discovers a copy of said book in a secondhand book shop. Despite the curse, she decides to read it and discovers that Mr Y drinks a potion that seems to take him to another world, which he names the Troposphere. When Ariel finds the recipe for the potion and makes her own way into the Troposphere, she unleashes an avalanche of events that rip through the ploy.

It’s a startlingly original book. Ariel is a fantastic protagonist, unapologetically intelligent and very flawed. Many novelists struggle to fight the urge to make their heroines beautiful, but Thomas shuns that in favour of a destructive sex appeal. It’s clear that her life has been very damaging but Thomas doesn’t dwell on this; hints are dropped about a fractured family life and a change of identity, but no explanation or further detail is forthcoming. The whole story is first person, mostly Ariel’s, and she tells of her deprived existence eloquently: ‘Very gourmet is worse, and implies a meal costing almost nothing’.

When I picked this book up, I must confess that I thought it would be an easy read. It looked fun and exciting but also like it might be a lightweight read. It was fun and exciting but it was also more than that. There are some seriously heavyweight concepts knocking around. I learned about language theory, philosophy and physics, which is definitely more than I expected.

In terms of criticism, I genuinely don’t think I have anything to say. I found it an enlightening and exciting read and one I too will be recommending to others.


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