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This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, 'Our Tragic Universe'

'Never judge a book by its cover,' says the old adage. While I know this is the case, I've often had a problem with this statement. If you aren't supposed to judge a book by it's cover, what do you judge it by? You can't just stand in Waterstones reading a whole book. Believe me, I've tried.

Luckily, anyone judging one of Scarlett Thomas's books by their beautiful hardback covers will not be disappointed by their content. I first came across Scarlett Thomas through The End of Mr. Y, which tells the story of a PhD student writing a thesis on late Victorian thought experiments, who finds a supposedly cursed book containing instructions on how to reach a psychic realm known as the 'troposphere'. If this all seems increasingly far fetched, be assured Thomas's prose is strong enough to carry the reader through it, and there are so many interesting philosophical ideas crammed within its pages that it makes for genuinely intelligent, thoughtful reading. I loved it, and started lending it to people almost as soon as I had put it down.

Last week I was pleasantly surprised when one of these people bought me a copy of her latest book, Our Tragic Universe, for my birthday. Especially as I needed something to read before the start of the next semester and a return to busy reading lists. Before opening it, judging the book by its cover, I saw that Cannongate's design department had once again excelled themselves.

The book's protagonist, Meg, lives with her boyfriend in Devon, ghostwriting teenage genre fiction to pay the bills while her 'proper' novel shrinks and changes shape but never seems to progress. There is a trend in fiction to centre stories around middle class bohemians, especially writers and publishers, and I sometimes worry that the whole thing could collapse into a smug, self referential black hole. In Our Tragic Universe, despite a cast made up almost exclusively of middle class bohemians, this does not seem to be a problem. The characters are human, likable, but imperfect. They move through the story getting together, breaking up, making unexpected fortunes, changing from happiness to sadness or from sadness to happiness, meeting fairies and searching for a monster on Dartmoor, but none of it feels climactic.

In most books this would be a flaw, but in a book which concerns itself so often with questions of plot, the nature of fiction and it's relationship to real life, it seems appropriate that despite all these reversals we finish the book feeling as if nothing much has happened. Indeed, one of the book's central questions is that of how to avoid simplistic expectations of a neat plot where the hero overcomes the monster and all loose ends are tied, both in fiction and in the ways we use its structures to understand our real lives.

Scarlett Thomas teaches creative writing in Kent, and it is clear that this has inspired some of the ways in which this book examines the structures of fiction, making it an interesting read for aspiring writers. While the book reflects the 'storyless stories' it discusses, it does it in such a way which to me, never felt boring, although I'm sure some readers would find it slow to start, I expect most of them would be won over by the end, which despite the feeling that nothing has been overcome, still gives a satisfying sense of conclusion.

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