Book Review: The End of Mr Y

The End of Mr Y is a Marmite book – I’m a lover – and so it was with great enthusiasm that I embarked on my second reading of this utterly intoxicating, highly original book.  If you’re craving a story that’s going to seize you by the imagination and draw you in to something enchanting and a little dark, this is your book!

science fiction | mystery | fantasy | magical realism


Rating: 5 out of 5.

back cover blurb

A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere?

Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists, especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between.

Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y’s footsteps: She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere; a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination?

Author – Scarlett Thomas | Published by – Cannongate Books in October 2007 | Pages – 506 (paperback)

my thoughts

I first read The End of Mr Y in 2007, having had it so enthusiastically recommended to me by a Waterstones bookworm that I snapped it up on the spot.  And I was SO glad I did; what an original story! If I were to try and describe the vibe of this book – because reading it really does evoke a feeling – then I’d say I felt energised … it’s utterly compelling and intoxicating, to the point where it almost resonates with a potency that’s impossible to ignore.   Picking it up again this week I briefly wondered if I wouldn’t feel as strongly about it after all this time … but it was a solid 5 stars then, and it more than upholds that status today.

Ariel Manto is a PhD student with a penchant for ‘thought experiments’, theoretical physics, and Victorian scientists.  Her studies have seeded and nurtured an obsession with one eccentric scientist in particular; the enigmatic Thomas Lumas. Having read almost all his published works, just one remains tantalisingly out of reach – The End of Mr Y.  This book is shrouded in mystery, with the only known copy said to be held in the vault of a bank … in Germany.  Ariel’s PhD supervisor, initially incredibly supportive of her pursuit of Mr Y, has a sudden and inexplicable change of heart … and then even more suddenly, vanishes! 

Somewhat dissolute and directionless, Ariel is enjoying a quiet smoke out of her office window one day when the ground quite literally opens up, taking a neighbouring uni building down with it.  No, this isn’t the work of the curse, just a disagreement between mother nature and structural engineers … but it’s the event that prompts Ariel to walk home early, passing a second hand bookshop where she stumbles across a box of books bearing an uncanny resemblance to her own studies … and an exceedingly rare copy of Lumas’s The End of Mr Y.


Excerpt

I’m shivering, but not just from the cold. I take The End of Mr Y carefully out of my bag and put it down on the table.  It seems wrong, somehow, sitting there next to the box of of other books and my coffee cup from this morning, so I move the box of books and put the cup in the sink.  Now the book is alone on the table. I pick it up and run my hand over it, feeling the coolness of the cream cloth cover. I turn it over and touch the back, as if it might feel different from the front; then I put it down again, my pulse going like ticker tape. 

I read the opening line of the preface, first in my head and then aloud: ‘The discourse which follows may appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerised by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed.’

I don’t die.  But then I didn’t expect to.  How could a book be cursed anyway?  The words themselves – which I don’t take in properly at first – simply seem like miracles.  Just the fact that they are there, that they exist, printed in black type on rough-cut pages that are brown with age; this is the thing that amazes me. I can’t imagine how many other hands have touched this page, or how many pairs of eyes have seen it. It was published in 1893, and then what happened? … Thomas Lumas had been notorious for a while in the 1860’s.  After that he seemed to retreat into ever more esoteric activities, visiting mediums, exploring paranormal events, and becoming a patron of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. After about 1880 he seems to stop publishing.  Then he wrote The End of Mr Y and died the day after it was published, after everyone else who’d also had something major to do with the book (the publisher, the editor, the typesetter) had also died.  Thus the rumoured curse.

I finish reading the preface at about nine o’clock. ‘It is only as a work of fiction that I wish this book to be considered.’ That’s how the preface ends.  What does that mean?  Surely anyone would read a novel as a fiction anyway?

It’s while I’m flicking though the pages that I see it.  There’s a page missing from the book.  I can’t quite believe it at first. Who would want to rip a page out of The End of Mr Y like this? Is it simply vandalism? I carefully check the rest of the book.  There are no other pages missing, nor any other obvious sign that somebody wanted to damage it. So why rip out a page?


Thomas Lumas’s The End of Mr Y is a book about a respectable businessman who passes the annual Goose Fair on his way home from a meeting. He feels himself drawn in to the fair ‘as if by mesmerism’, deeper and deeper until he happens upon the Spectral Opera.  Unable to comprehend what he’s seeing he lingers after the show finishes and follows curiosity’s claw to a moodily-lit ante chamber where he encounters the fairground doctor, a mysterious tincture to drink, and a black dot. Hours later he resurfaces from an inexplicable experience where he was living inside the soul of another man; thinking his thoughts, feeling his emotions, tasting his food, all while remaining lucid and cogent, entirely aware of his own self existing in parallel. The doctor is gone when Mr Y wakes, and so begins a fruitless search for the fair which blossoms into an all-consuming obsession and the decline of his business. 

It’s apparent that Thomas Lumas’s book isn’t the work of fiction he asserts it to be, and soon Ariel becomes convinced that the recipe for the tincture was transcribed on the missing page of the book.  Without giving too much away, Ariel embarks on an obsessive quest to track down the missing page to recreate this mysterious draught, so she too can travel through the thoughts and memories of others.

The place where this mind-travel takes place was christened the Troposphere by Mr Y in Lumas’s book; it’s a place that’s as hard to grasp as your own dreams, with that sensation of unease and disquiet that linger after the dream has faded. The Troposphere isn’t a cosy dream world – quite the opposite, and it’s made all the more unsafe by the grey-suited, gun-toting American spooks who are hunting Ariel in this world, and the real one.

The End of Mr Y is a marmite book … and I’m a wholehearted lover. It’s an ingenious book of many layers, time zones, and narratives. There are times when the conversations between Ariel and other characters delve really deeply into physics, philosophy, religion and homeopathy. My brain just isn’t wired that way, and I found myself re-reading some parts of it because I wanted to try and understand the many depths and facets of this book.  However, the abundance of science in no way affected my enjoyment of the book. Whilst I’m on this point, I want to make mention of the fact that I’ve read several reviews of The End of Mr Y that are quite disparaging of the accuracy of its scientific content … whilst these reviewers are clearly mega-brains, I think they’re missing the point that this is a book to be read for enjoyment; it’s not an academic tome. In fact, I think it’s ironic that a sentence lifted straight from Thomas Lumas’s own original copy of the End of Mr Y makes the purpose of Scarlett Thomas’s book quite clear: ‘It is only as a work of fiction that I wish this book to be considered.

So, if you’re craving a book that’s going to seize you by the imagination and draw you in to something enchanting and a little dark, The End of Mr Y is your book.  Scarlett Thomas has woven a story of so many layers, and you will emerge feeling just a little bit smarter too! It’s fast-paced and addictive, and although you won’t always like the characters, you’ll find its intriguing complexity makes it nigh on impossible to put down … right until you reach the most perfectly symbiotic ending.


This is the first time I’ve read a book for the second time – partly because there are just too many other books jostling for space in my TBRs, but also because I didn’t want to emerge from my second reading wondering what I’d seen in it the first time round. Thankfully that didn’t happen, making my lack of progress on my TBRs entirely worthwhile. Are you a habitual re-reader?

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The End of Mr Y

    1. I went on a bit of a Scarlett Thomas binge-fest after reading Mr Y! Popco was my next read; it was very different but really enjoyable. I also really loved Bright Young Things and Our Tragic Universe. I’ve not read Oligarchy … yet!

      Liked by 1 person

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