Thursday 7 May 2020

Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas

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The novel gets off to a dramatic start with a car being pushed into a river in an attempt to avoid being caught in infidelity. This first section presents us with an array of unhappy relationships that will develop throughout. Meg, our protagonist, is a ghostwriter for popular genre fiction and aspiring literary author. She is stuck in a damp cottage with a partner she no longer loves, who contributes nothing financially, and causes her a lot of anxiety with his temperamental ways. She reviews books for a local paper and when an unusual non-fiction with strange ideas about the universe and the afterlife lands on her desk she finds her world beginning to shift. What follows is a gently paced tale of very ordinary lives interspersed with musings on the construction of stories, sock knitting, and the role of New Age theories.

These side topics can be frustrating or interesting depending on your taste. The gently littered references to various hobbies can feel natural whereas the longer segues in to conversations about high level theories often feel unnecessarily lengthy and halt the narrative. Thomas makes it clear how these thoughts fit into the overarching purpose of the novel but they can still present a block to enjoyment.

Meg's character is contradictory, but often in ways that tickle the reader. She has very clear ideas about what a genre novel should be and how none of the components can fit into her ‘real’ novel, revealing the pointlessness of snobbery about books. She deletes more words than she replaces and yet believes it is a lack of time that prevents her writing, finding lots of little obstacles, yet she makes use of every spare second when writing her genre fiction, admitting to writing on her phone in supermarket queues. It seems clear that she is setting herself so may tight restrictions to achieve her ‘real’ novel and therefore stunts her imagination, enjoyment of the writing, and therefore probably also that of the reader, should she ever finish it.

Her constant excuses and imagined barriers are also reflected in the inability to escape unhappy relationships in both herself and her friends. She does eventually realise that there’ll always be reasons why now is not a good time but that they’re not worth wasting your life for. This revelation is a relief to readers as the picture built up of her relationship is so claustrophobic and unhealthy that you’re desperate for her to escape.

This is a gentle read with believable characters living very ordinary lives and for the inquisitive mind there’s much beyond the narrative to get stuck in to. The relationships depicted feel real and Thomas doesn’t present us with all the answers for a happily ever after.

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  1. I love this book and you've described perfectly what I like and don't like about it.