Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Book cover of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett ThomasScrawled on the page of my review notebook dedicated to Our Tragic Universe in huge red letters are the words ‘This will be a BITCH to review!!!’ And you know what? It really, really is. I really did love it though. I’ve never read a Scarlett Thomas book before, despite Bex’s continuous prodding, but I saw this in the charity shop all pretty and shiny (literally, it looks like it’s made out of gold tin foil) and I just had to give it a go. It’s one of those books where you know you absolutely adored it but just can’t work out why. Ah well, want to bare with me while I have a go? 🙂

Plot summary – 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.

I was completely hooked on this book from the very few pages, even though I hadn’t worked out where it was leading or even what it was about. I still haven’t actually. I think that’s part of its charm though – it’s very normal on some levels. It’s just Meg, going about her daily (and fairly mediocre) life while thinking in exactly the same way we all do – pointless and rambly musings heading off in tangents in all directions.

It never gets boring though, that’s the thing. There’s virtually no action and there are a fair few lengthy essays about philosophy, but somehow Meg’s voice saves it. The prose is jumpy, rambling and… well, completely amazing. It’s not always relevant to the plot (to the extent that one actually exists) but it didn’t bother me – I just got lost in Meg’s world and her thoughts. It’s like being inside a real person’s life, not a book person’s life.

How do you end a story about a Beast? We’d discussed that for hours. Chekhov said if you have a gun in a story it needs to go off. If you have a Beast in a story, does it need to ‘go off’ too? When? How? My novel, my bloody albatross, The Death of the Author, deliberately had no such symmetry, and I was constantly in turmoil because one minute it would have too much narrative: people desperately in love, or waking up from their comas, or lying in ditches contemplating great life cchanges and so on – just like a formulaic genre novel – then I’d fiddle with it and it would die: a species extinct before it has even begun. 

 There’s a lot of book talk in Our Tragic Universe, both specific and vague. The former is great – Meg mentions Anna Karenina a lot, amongst other books, and I loved relating her thoughts to my own. The latter though? Not so much. She’s desperately trying to write a literary novel and run classes on genre formulation and, despite being reasonable well-read and informed on the literary world, a lot of it went way over my head. It’s also occasionally quite snide about teenage books – sometimes I got the feeling that Scarlett Thomas would never deign to write anything other than literary fiction. To be fair, she’s very, very good at it!

Nothing is too obscure for Meg and Scarlett Thomas to muse over – placebos, the end of the world, evolution, memories, veganism, homeopathic remedies… It’s great; I’ve never read a book like it. Even the damn Cottingley Fairies get a mention… *sighs* God, I loathe fairies. I live within walking distance of Cottingley Woods where the whole thing took place so there’s an awful lot of fairy-ness around here. Although, judging by how excited I got when it was mentioned in the book, I don’t hate the very source of where my fairy dislike originated. A bundle of contradictions, that’s me.

You may have gathered by now, but not a whole lot actually happens in Our Tragic Universe. There is an over-riding objective (wonderful, I’m inserting legal terminology into reviews now…) but it was over-shadowed for me by the general prose. I think I’d have prefered a few more answers by the end, but I suppose that that’s kind of the point.

Well, it’s looking like the copy of The End of Mr Y that has been sat on my TBR for more than a year will eventually get read, along with everything else Scarlett Thomas has ever written ever. 

Visit Scarlett Thomas’ website here, or find her on Twitter. 


  1. I tried The End of Mr Y a few years back, but couldn't get into it unfortunately. I hope you have better luck with it – glad you enjoyed this one

  2. Sophia says:

    I am glad you loved this. I read The End of Mr Y a couple of months ago, then rushed out and bought 4 more of Scarlett Thomas's books because I loved it so much. One of them was this, but I haven't read it yet.

    If you do read TEOMY I think you might be pleasantly surprised. One thing you can't possibly say about it is that nothing much happens, as it's pretty action-packed. I've heard great things about Popco too, so that's another on my list. I swear if I lived to a thousand I'd never get through all the books I want to read!

    1. Hanna says:

      I know the feeling about never getting through all the books you want to – it's both great and horrifying at the same time!

      I'm really looking forward to TEOMY. Like I said up there somewhere, I do already own it, so hopefully I'll get to it soon 🙂

  3. Your thoughts on this one are very similar to my thoughts on Mr Y. I tell you, I enjoyed just working out Mr Y and realising that in some weird way it MADE SENSE and I don't think it was supposed to?

  4. I kind of wish that I'd read this as my first Scarlett Thomas instead of TEOMY. I read TEOMY a few years ago but I do remember that it has a heck of a lot of random science-y musings. I was generally a little bemused by the end. If Our Tragic Universe does a similar thing but with bookishness/random thoughts, I am convinced that I would like a lot better (I mean, really, science and me just don't get along). With TEOMY, when it wandered off into quantum physics, I can only imagine how glazed over my eyes must have looked.

    I kind of liked it but I'd think twice about recommending it to people not of a science-y persuasion that haven't read any Scarlett Thomas before. Now you have been inaugurated, I kind of recommend TEOMY, just with warnings about science. (Do you think I've used derivatives of the word 'science' in this comment enough yet??)

    I have this on my eReader, I think. Now that I'm not worried it being all scientific, I'm much more keen to read it!

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