Thursday, January 13, 2011

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Posted by Simcha 3:30 PM, under | 7 comments

When Ariel Manto uncovers a copy of The End of Mr. Y in a second-hand bookshop, she can’t believe her eyes. She know enough about its author, the eccentric Victorian scientist Thomas Lumas, to know that copies are exceedingly rare. And some say, cursed.

With Mr. Y under her arm, Ariel finds herself swept into a thrilling adventure of love, sex, death and time-travel.

Whenever I get into a discussion about books with Israeli fantasy readers I recommend to them my favorite authors- Scott Lynch, Peter Brett, Patrick Rothfuss- none of whom they have ever heard of, and they inevitably insist that I read
The End of Mr. Y, which I had never heard of. These conversations have become so predictable that I decided it was high time that I read the End of Mr. Y so that I could at least change my response the next time the conversation takes place. I was also by now pretty curious about this book, which all Israeli fantasy fans seem to be so crazy about.

Luckily for me I recently came across
The End of Mr. Y at a second-hand book shop and the description on the back cover was sufficiently intriguing, so I went ahead and purchased it. During the bus ride home I took out the book to begin reading it and a female soldier in the seat behind me leaned over to provide her recommendation of the book. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I have ever had a stranger in Israel comment to me about a book that I was reading (and I read in public all the time) and so I was suitably impressed and quite eager to discover what was so special about The End of Mr. Y.

Ariel arrives at the university prepared to begin working on her PHD on thought experiments, with the supervision of Professor Burlem. But just as she settles in the Professor mysteriously disappears leaving no clues as to his whereabouts. Ariel is understandably irritated, unsure as to how to proceed without him, and so she continues her research as planned.

One day, while taking a new route home, Ariel comes across a used bookstore. She stops in to see if they might have any books that she can use for her research and to her astonishment finds an exceedingly rare copy of The End of Mr. Y. Ariel can’t believe her good fortune since there is only one other known copy of the book in existence. And despite the rumor that the book is cursed, and anyone who reads it dies shortly afterwards, Ariel doesn’t hesitate in jumping right in.

But Ariel’s life is forever changed by what she finds inside the book and Professor Burlem’s disappearance suddenly begins to make sense. Soon others find out about Ariel’s possession of The End of Mr. Y and they will do whatever it takes to get the book and eliminate Ariel and her knowledge of its secrets.

The End of Mr. Y
was nothing like what I had expected. The book blurb had put me in mind of The Shadow of the Wind, with its reference to a rare book and its mysterious author. But I wasn’t expecting the mental gymnastics that it put me through with discussions of quantum physics, theology, mathematics and philosophy- subjects that rarely crop up in my leisure reading. I suppose that I must have studied physics at some point but I felt completely in the dark whenever the characters would bring up Samuel Butler’s theories, Derrida or Schrodinger’s Cat (which happened quite often). Though when I did manage to understand what was being discussed I felt pretty proud of myself, if somewhat exhausted by the effort.

But even though the physics and science stuff mostly went over my head I was still easily caught up in the rest of the story which involved magic potions, sinister villains, time travel, alternate dimensions and even some romance.

Ariel was not an easy character for me to read about, with her frequent swearing, self-destructive tendencies and addiction to hard sex - for which she despises herself. But as the story progressed and it became clear that Ariel wasn’t as hardened as she first appeared, she became more sympathetic and real to me, and I became drawn into the story even more. Adam’s appearance helps to soften Ariel’s rough edges, with the new romantic possibilities that he offers as well as a relationship different than any other that Ariel has ever experienced.

Although a few days have passed since I finished
The End of Mr. Y and I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m still not sure what my feelings about the book are. I enjoyed the story, which was exciting and fast paced, and I really came to care about the characters, even some of those who only made brief appearances, but there was also a lot here that I didn’t understand. I’m not sure how much more satisfying the book would have been had I understood everything but I’ll probably give it another read at some point to see if I can pick up on some of the details that I missed the first time around. And I have to say that I have a heightened respect for Israeli fantasy readers seeing that this is the kind of genre book that is so popular here. No wonder none of them have heard of Scott Lynch of Patrick Rothfuss (- OK, just kidding. I do know some Israelis that enjoy classic fantasies as well.)

So if you are wondering if this is a book that you will enjoy, well- It’s hard for me to say. The answer would be a definite yes if you already have an interest in philosophy, quantum physics and thought experiments, though I don’t believe you have to be an expert on the topics to understand the discussions in The End of Mr. Y. If you enjoy having your mind bended and twisted around a bit then this would probably be a good book for you as well. At times it was like reading some of the crazier parts of a Jasper Fforde Thursday next book, but without the humor. I think that if the book blurb interests you I would probably urge you to give Mr. Y a try, even if you are like me and usually avoid books that force you to think too much while reading (yes, I do admit it. I mostly read just for fun and entertainment and not to have my mind expanded). But it’s refreshing to try something so vastly different every now and again and you might be surprised at how much you end up enjoying it, just as I was.


It sure is not an easy book, but I like them difficult too :)
And aww Schrödinger, I thank SG1 for knowing about all things like that

On the one hand, all the talk of quantum physics is turning me off, but on the other hand - the comparison with Shadow of the Wind is luring I think I might try this one.

I am reading Shadow of the Wind now, and I can kind of see what you mean about the similarities. But The End of Mr. Y, for me, deteriorated toward the end, and I left it feeling much less excited by it than I thought I was going to be. :/ (Hoping I don't end up feeling that way about Shadow of the Wind, which I LOVE so far.)

hi simcha!
when i read the blurb before your review, the first thing that popped in my head was the shadow of the wind too (a book I LOVED). but it's not at all huh? it sounds very complicated with the quantum physics & philosophy stuff--i mostly read for the fun and entertainment too. have a great friday :)


I can't believe it!! I am also reading this book right now.
I won't read this post until I have finished. I have just got to the part where 'The Shadow of the Wind' meets 'The Matrix'

Philosophy? Quantum physics? Thought experiments? I'm hooked. I must find a copy of this novel.

Thanks for the review! I've never heard of The End of Mr. Y, and it sounds exactly the kind of book I like to read.

Blodeuedd: While I might end up enjoy a difficult book I don't think I would actually read one on purpose. I like 'em easy ;)

Stephanie & Jenny: The comparison to the Shadow of the Wind only lasted until I actually started the book. While there are some similarities in the vary basic storyline the two books are really nothing alike. Stephanie, I think you might actually enjoy this book though

Esther: Yeah, I saw that you were reading it and I left a comment for you on Goodreads but for some reason I don't think it went through. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Jenny: Well I'm impressed if those are qualities that would actually attract you to a book ;) I hope you enjoy it.

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