Friday, 9 January 2009

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr Y has everything I look for in a novel - interesting characters, adventure, sex, philosophy, time-travel paradoxes and a dash of fantasy. It is the story of Ariel Manto - a slightly self-destructive woman who is doing a PhD on 'thought experiments'. A few months after her PhD supervisor mysteriously goes missing, she stumbles across a copy of The End of Mr Y in a second-hand bookshop. She knows enough about the book and its Victorian author to know that it is extremely rare and, famously, cursed.

Being in possession of the book whisks Ariel into another dimension, puts her life at risk, exposes her to government secrets, and brings knowledge beyond her expectation. This is really an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole story - exploring what curiosity and insatiable appetite for knowledge can do to a person; where it will take you and the good and bad consequences. It's an exciting novel, and not just because of the thrilling adventurous plot, but because of the big ideas it explores. Thomas has managed to make science and philosophy riveting by threading them into the rampant storyline. Ariel is interested in relativity, quantum physics, consciousness, fourth dimensions, even religious theory - and on her adventure the reader gets to follow her thoughts and discoveries on all these things and more. She is an independent learner, and sort of forces the unsuspecting reader to become one too, just by trying to understand Ariel's train of thought. But I loved every second of it, even the science-y bits.

It's like I always say - the best books are the ones where your experience of them does not end when you've read the last page. When they take you on to new places, open up doors of interest or understanding, spur stimulating conversation, expand your horizons and bring revelations - that's when they should sit aloft your list of favourites.

Thomas was hugely ambitious with this book, addressing issues one 'little novel' would not normally encompass. But she's pulled it off with panache - I would read Mr Y again and again for its style, humour, racy tempo and clever cocktail of speculation on modern society interweaving with Victorian.

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