Margot McGovern names five smart and savvy reads from one of the UK’s literary darlings.
In her latest novel, The Seed Collectors (2015), Scarlett Thomas posits that: ‘Somewhere in the world there is a magical book. What does this book do? It simply changes itself to become the book you most need at this point in your life.’ For me, The End of Mr. Y (2006) was that book. It was 2009, I was in the second year of my PhD (a.k.a. the ‘WTF was I thinking?’ stage) and the thing I needed most was an escape. I was hiding out in the university book shop, ostensibly looking for some essential text, but actually avoiding my office where the Dread Monster Thesis lurked amid a chaos of incoherent notes, unread articles and dirty coffee cups. And there, tucked between class sets of Jane Eyre and Mrs Dalloway, was the intriguingly titled The End of Mr. Y. The blurb was oddly meta: English PhD candidate stumbles upon a supposedly cursed book, The End of Mr. Y, and within it finds a portal into ‘psychokinetic metaspace’ where she must race ‘against (or possibly around) time; outcome to determine THE FATE OF HUMANITY’. Voila: escape!
The End of Mr. Y has all the smarts and mind-bending properties of of cultural theory course reader but with the added advantages of action! Adventure! Romance! Terror! Suspense! And, most importantly, a sense of humour. Upon finishing, in a fit of nerdy fervour/spectacular thesis procrastination, I promptly sourced and read all Thomas’ books. To date there are nine.
So who is this this Scarlett Thomas of whom I speak? Thomas is a UK author/academic who made her literary debut with a crime trilogy: ‘The Lily Pascale Mysteries’, Dead Clever (1998), In Your Face (1999) and Seaside (1999), in which English lecturer, Lily, uses literary analysis and mad research skillz to solve a string of murders. They’re fun and fast paced with a little romance sprinkled amid the crime drama, in short: beach reading for serious book nerds.
Her first stand-alone novel, Bright Young Things, about a group of smart, adrift twenty-somethings who find themselves lumped together on a deserted island, was published in 2001. That same year she was named by The Independent as one of ’20 Best Young Writers’ and in 2002 she won Best New Writer in the Elle Style Awards. She was also among the fifteen writers whose short stories were included in the controversial anthology, All Hail the New Puritans (2000), which heralded a new literary age in the UK but was met with rather tepid reception.
From this ambitious beginning, Thomas’s writing has gained depth and maturity. Her later novels are full of puzzles, labyrinths and paradigm shifts wrapped up in rollicking plots and delivered with a sharp, satirical and wonderfully dark sense of humour.
She has been nominated for a number of awards and writes short stories and reviews in addition to her novels. She currently teaches and supervises at the University of Kent. She’s also written a book on writing Monkeys With Typewriters (2012), which, full disclosure, is the one book of hers I’m yet to read.
If you’re up for a smart, fun read with the potential to alter your world view, Scarlett Thomas is your go-to gal. Here’s five of her best:
The Seed Collectors (2015)
The Gardener family tree is full of twisted branches and hidden hollows. Back in the late 1980s, Briar Rose, Grace and Plum Gardener went searching for a fabled orchid of incredible power and were never seen again. Now Great Aunt Oleander is dead and Fleur, Clem, Charlie and Bryony have each inherited a seed pod, believed to be from the same orchid their mothers went looking for years before.
If the Gardeners can figure out how to use them, the seedpods will give the them the fulfilment and happiness the so desperately seek—but at a terrible price.
The Seed Collectors is heavy going, but Thomas serves her story with generous helpings of humour and pathos. Her characters are flawed and funny, hopelessly adrift in the doldrums of their upper-middle class existence and fishing for meaning in all the wrong places.
The End of Mr. Y (2006)
Following the disappearance of her PhD supervisor, Ariel Manto stumbles on a cursed book rumoured to contain a recipe to transport the reader to another plain of existence (a.k.a. the Troposphere) where all consciousness is linked. The more she reads, the more convinced Ariel becomes that her supervisor’s disappearance is linked to this other world. However, she’s not the only one with a way in, and what starts as a cosy mystery quickly transforms into a high-speed, psychokinetic thriller with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Combining adventure, romance and postmodernist and deconstructionist theory, The End of Mr. Y is the ultimate thinking reader’s thriller.
Twenty-nine-year-old Alice Butler has a knack for cracking codes. The daughter of two WWII cryptoanalysts, she’s landed herself a dream job designing spy kits for a giant toy company, PopCo. However, when she’s sent with a team of colleagues to Blechley Park on a ‘Thought Camp’ to design the ultimate product for teenage girls, things take a turn for the sinister.
PopCo is a story of hidden messages in which Thomas casts a sharp, critical eye over the world of marketing.
Bonus: this novel contains buried treasure.
Going Out (2002)
Luke wants nothing more than to go out. He’s twenty-five and a severe allergy to the sun means he’s stuck in his bedroom. By contrast, his best friend Julie wants to stay in. A brilliant mathematician, she lives with her dad, works at the local retail park and would happily stay at home indefinitely. However, when Luke meets a healer online, he and Julie put aside their fears and team up for an epic midnight road trip in search of a cure.
Dead Clever (1998)
Crime fiction fans, this one’s for you. Lily Pascale is thrilled to land a job teaching crime fiction at a local university. However, the unsolved murder of her predecessor is somewhat troubling. When the body count begins to rise and the (rather dreamy) Victorian Fiction lecturer disappears, Lily decides to investigate.
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