Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas


Before I begin this review I have some apologies to make. I would like to apologise to my family, my friends and my colleagues – all of whom I totally shunned while reading this book. Which probably tells you all you need to know, but I’ll elaborate anyway.

It’s a pretty tough book to describe, so here’s what the blurb has to say for itself:

“If Kelsey Newman’s theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever. For Meg – locked in a hopeless relationship and with a deadline long-gone for a book that she can’t write – this thought fills her with dread.

Meg is lost in a labyrinth of her own devising. But could there be an important connection between a wild beast living on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time, a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe and the Cottingley Fairies? Or is her life just one long chain of coincidences?

Smart, entrancing and buzzing with big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, and how a story might just save your life.”

Got you yet? If the blurb hadn’t already clinched it for me, I would have been a goner from this line on page 4:

“The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse.”

That line, right there, probably tells you all you need to know about Scarlett Thomas’s writing. It’s full of luscious lines like that, but it is by no means a blowsy and overwritten book, which is the marvellous thing about it. Despite being full of wonderful little details like the one above and teeming with big ideas about time, death and our place in the universe, it’s not at all a worthy or ostracising book. Perhaps because of Meg, who narrates the novel and whose life is so stuck-in-a-rut it makes you feel you’re better off than you thought. She’s got the world’s worst boyfriend, friends who ought to be in their own personal soap opera and an ongoing novel that seems to do nothing but eat itself. But I didn’t despise her or wish myself out of her company. In fact I enjoyed her company, she’s a down-to-earth woman who – unlike some heroines – doesn’t feel she knows it all. In fact the opposite is true, she spends the whole novel trying and exploring new things.

I loved Meg’s ability to try anything. Part of the work she does for a newspaper involves researching flower remedies and Tarot cards amongst other things for a big article about alternative therapies. But Thomas never has Meg sneer at her subjects, in fact, Meg makes some really compelling discoveries. But it’s probably her delicious turn of phrase I loved most about her:

“When I left the deli the evening had shrugged itself onto the town.”

The “big ideas” are probably what I enjoyed most about this book. The discussions Meg and her friends have over dinner and bottles of wine are the sort I love to have. Ideas about narrative, “storyless stories,” time, death, the end of the world that made my head spin and want to talk about them more. But this novel is also a collection of that particular sort of long-winded joke, Zen stories and hobbies ranging from knitting, Bach remedies and jamming on guitars after dinner.

The great thing about the book is all the things it has thrown up for me. This time last week I hadn’t even considered knitting a sock, let alone reading up on flower remedies. And it doesn’t attempt to tidy up all the loose ends, there are a couple left fluttering in the breeze, which leaves you with the strongest feeling that Meg lives on beyond the final pages, which makes me happy.

Oh and another apology to all those who may not be getting what they really want for Christmas. You’ll be getting this book instead.


Canongate Books Ltd, 2010. ISBN-10: 184767089X. 428pp.

5 comments on “Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

  1. chasing bawa
    July 27, 2010

    I really loved this book too! And her previous one, The End of Mr. Y, which tapped into ideas from quantum mechanics and was more of a mystery. I especially enjoyed Thomas’ discussion of big ideas (there were so many and varied) and Meg’s struggles with writing her novel. Made you think and laugh at the same time. I’m looking forward to reading her next novel.

  2. Jackie
    July 27, 2010

    This sounds unusual, but very appealing, especially the way you describe Meg, who sounds quite refreshing as a heroine. Nicely placed quotes & your enthusiasm made this a pleasant review, despite complex story lines. In lesser hands it might’ve been a mishmash, but you’ve made it all clear & inviting.

  3. JoV
    July 27, 2010

    I have this on my side table now and waiting to clear some library book backlog and read this one.

    I’m intrigued by the frequent mention of bloggers of it being a mish-mash and a book with great ideas… I am curious what reading experience it would bring. can’t wait.

  4. lisa
    July 28, 2010

    This sounds fascinating, nikki. Super review.

  5. Nikki
    July 28, 2010

    Thank you for your comments. It’s a really tough book to describe. It’s not like I can say there’s a clear plot, there’s no adventure, no clues to follow, no villain to foil. Although now I’ve said that – there sort of is an adventure, clues and a villain. But I couldn’t begin to describe why! So read it and see if you understand what I mean! I’d love to know what you think of it, especially as I loved it so much.

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This entry was posted on July 27, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .



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