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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Bright Young Things

by
Scarlett Thomas


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bright Young Things



Title: Bright Young Things
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 342 pages
Availability: Bright Young Things - US
Bright Young Things - UK
Bright Young Things - Canada
L'isola dei segreti - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : parts of it somewhat forced, but overall good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 9/3/2001 Andrew Morrod
The Times . 4/8/2001 Steve Jelbert


  From the Reviews:
  • "The narrative is invigorating, often sexy and never clichéd (.....) Clever stuff that keeps the pages turning." - Andrew Morrod, Daily Mail

  • "Not since The Beach has a "yoof" novel so wickedly satirised its target audience and their shallow pretensions." - Steve Jelbert, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bright Young Things has a rather far-fetched premise, with six English twenty-somethings finding themselves part of an elaborate set-up that sees them kidnapped and deposited on a small and otherwise uninhabited island, for reasons that long remain unclear (and prove, when revealed, also to be rather far-fetched). As one of them observes: "Someone's gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to set this up" -- and that started with the selection process, an advert announcing simply: "Bright Young Things wanted for big project". Six of the candidates who wrote in and then filled out a more extensive application form are invited for an ostensible a job interview; when they get there, while waiting for the interview, they are drugged -- apparently something in the coffee -- and wake up on the island, without a clue as to how they got there and why they're there.
       The six -- three men, three women -- are indeed 'Bright Young Things', but also, to various degrees, adrift -- one of the reasons they answered the advert. Several were looking for a job, while others just felt the need for a change. They range from Jamie -- twenty-two, with a First from Cambridge in Pure Mathematics and a girlfriend he wants to escape -- to art school graduate Emily who has drifted into escort work, and contrarian Anne, who has managed some academic success despite almost never going along with what has been expected of her (such as spending two months recently in the US, but never leaving her aunt's house except to go to the local twenty-four-hour supermarket).
       They are, understandably, confused about what has happened to them when they come to on the island. The locale is a truly isolated spot -- nicely introduced by Thomas as:

Almost completely round, and about half a mile in diameter, it's the most unlikely place Anne's ever seen. It seems like the kind of thing you'd imagine or draw, not somewhere you'd actually be.
       There is a house, with six bedrooms prepared for them, each door with one of their names on it. The house is well-stocked with food and drink, there's a nice library, and they eventually figure out that there's electricity as well -- so: "It's not exactly a survival situation", as one of them notes: if this is meant to be some kind of test as to how to deal with hardship it's certainly short on hardship. They are cut off from the rest of the world -- their phones don't work, and there doesn't seem to be any other means of communicating with the outside world -- but beyond that it's not a particularly harsh environment to be in. But there's no clue as to why they're there, or who brought them.
       The first part of the novel devotes a chapter to each of the characters, a quick sketch of each of them, as well as an explanation of what led them to answer the call for Bright Young Things -- a very strong beginning, Thomas smartly capturing these characters and the dissatisfied states they find themselves in. They do share some characteristics, besides being bright, with some childhood hardships and tending towards the asocial.
       In the second part of the novel, which begins with them coming to on the island, they quickly dig deeper in getting to know one another. While they do speculate and wonder about what they're doing there, they don't investigate quite as intensively as one might expect; instead, there's a lot of chatting -- culminating in an extended game of 'Truth or Dare', which allows them to reveal yet more about themselves.
       The characters share quite openly. Some start falling for each other -- generally in rather awkward teen-fashion; despite having a large variety of experiences between them, they're still rather lacking in maturity. All the conversation does, however, reveal that they've experienced quite a bit, including a few traumas along the way (character-defining, in some cases). A lot of that experience also seems to have been a bit much for them; as one of them puts it:
     'It's like we've overdosed,' says Thea thoughtfully.
     'Overdosed ?' says Jamie.
     'Yeah. We're only in our twenties, but we've already overdosed on the world.'
       Part of that is also insufficient actual experience -- theirs tends to have been both a bit much but also, in one way or another, limited. Just as this particular exercise is too. Though at least this exercise eventually comes with an added twist .....
       While they do explore their new environment, they aren't particularly thorough; repeatedly, they'll only find yet another useful thing when they look again and more closely. So also they do notice there's an attic, but since the door is locked they don't initially bother with that. Despite occasionally hearing noises there .....
       Eventually they do check out the attic -- and to Thomas' credit, she puts a nice little spin on the otherwise all too predictable scenario they uncover. The characters are, understandably, disconcerted by what they find and learn -- and it leads to further intensive and extensive reflection (in other words: lots of gabbing)
       They do try to figure out why the six of them were selected, comparing backgrounds to see whether there are some hidden connections but not finding any that would seem to explain this. They recall that one of the questions on the extensive application was what their greatest fear was -- but here too it turns out they all had different ones. Yet this exercise certainly turns into one of facing their fears -- which extend beyond the basic answers they gave: they're all a bit removed from the real world, unable to take the first (or next) steps towards actual adulthood, independence, and personal happiness. Without overdoing it too much, Thomas sets them nicely on course to maybe slowly getting there.
       If not entirely defining, they're all strongly influenced by the pop culture they've consumed, and it's one way they relate to each other; it also means there are a lot of references to the music and TV of the day (especially the 1990s) -- though Thomas manages this well enough that their talk mostly isn't too obscure or dated (though presumably a younger readership will already struggle with some of it). Several of them are interested in computers and programming, with Anne having even invented her own alternative-life video game, where you can live out a different life; "It's just a game", she claims, but it's typical for their escapism, unable to deal with the real world and retreating into another. So also, even if they did not come here of their own volition, the island is a retreat from reality -- and even as Thomas allows them, through their experiences here, to arguably adjust better to the real-world than they seem to have on the mainland, it's telling that the book's conclusion leaves somewhat open-ended their reïntegration into the world at large.
       Dialogue-heavy, Bright Young Things is a bit too comfortably domestic for the extreme situation its characters find themselves in, the locale and the circumstances rather easily accepted much of the time, as if they were simply over at some friend's house. Still, Thomas is very good with dialogue, and the banter and invention on display here makes for consistently enjoyable reading. She's sharp in defining her characters too, cutting to the quick in some very nicely expressed description; only the budding romances feel too awkward -- more like juvenile fiction than anything adult.
       There's quite a bit of smart writing in Bright Young Things, and the concept is fairly well-executed -- avoiding the most predictable turns -- though a few too many parts and pieces also can seem a bit forced. Overall, it's good fun, and nicely turned (if also, ultimately, somewhat over-turned).

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 March 2019

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Links:

Bright Young Things: Reviews: Scarlett Thomas: Other books by Scarlett Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Scarlett Thomas was born in 1972.

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© 2019 the complete review

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