This book caught my eye at the winter Canberra Lifeline Bookfair this year glinting like a bright blue treasure. One of the great things about Scarlett Thomas’ earlier books like “The End of Mr Y” and “Our Tragic Universe” is that they were published in these beautiful editions with metallic detail and tinted edges. This one is adorned with silver digits and the most incredible navy blue page edges. I’d been keeping an eye out for this edition for ages and finally it was mine.
“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas is about Alice Butler, a woman in her late twenties who works for one of the world’s biggest toy companies. While she’s working on a new project to go with her kids’ code cracking kits, Alice is invited to a company conference that ends up being a lot more involved than she was expected. Even more unexpected are the mysterious coded messages that she starts to receive. Among all the new colleagues she’s been meeting, and all the seminars she’s been attending. Alice isn’t sure who the messages could be from. What she does know is that they’re dredging up memories of what it was like growing up with a cryptoanalyst as a grandfather and the significance of the necklace she wears around her neck.
The beauty of Thomas’ writing is that she’s incredibly clever, and writes about incredibly clever concepts, but does so in such a way that she never makes her audience feel stupid and never makes herself seem snobbish. Every book of hers I read, I learn something completely new and, having always enjoyed puzzles and maths as a kid, in this book I got to learn about the fascinating arts of cryptography and cryptoanalysis: making and breaking codes. Then there is all the fascinating stuff on marketing. Thomas is a considered and evocative writer and I always enjoy her slightly off-kilter, very brilliant and quite subversive protagonists. The first two thirds of this story are absolutely engrossing and almost unputdownable (I’m making this a word). While still incredibly interesting, the story does morph into something a little more moralistic in the last third which takes a little of the steam out of the mystery.
I’d been anticipating this book for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. As captivating on the inside as it is on the outside, if you’re looking to read something a bit different and a bit enlightening, see if you can find a copy of this one.