‘A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding’ by Amanda Svensson (Review)

After last week’s visits to France, it’s time for a new destination on our Women in Translation Month travels, and my next two reviews will head further north, taking us to Sweden.  However, if we’re being exact, very little of today’s read actually takes place there, with much of the action happening further afield (in one case, *much* further afield).  It’s time for us to meet a very unusual family as they attempt to navigate their complicated lives, wondering all the while whether there’s a meaning to it all – a system, perhaps…

*****
Amanda Svensson’s A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding (translated by Nichola Smalley, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) is a rollicking, chunkster of a novel, a book spanning several countries and introducing the reader to a host of larger-than-life characters.  It starts with the birth of the Isaksson triplets, a time marked by chaos, confessions and a possible error, one that will have major consequences.

We then skip forward twenty-six years to find that after a traumatic event, one we’re only informed of slowly, the triplets have dispersed.  Sebastian is in London, working at the mysterious London Institute of Cognitive Science, on both human and animal patients, while Matilda, who lives in Berlin with her new partner, has gone back to the Swedish forests for the summer.  As for Clara, who has just lost her job, well, she’s feeling like it’s the end of the world – so why not just go there?  Easter Island, that is…

Over more than five-hundred pages, the story of the Isaksson triplets unfolds, and as it does, details begin to catch the reader’s eye, coincidences, parallels.  We begin to suspect that there’s more to the story than we, or the triplets, have been told, and after a host of adventures, the story culminates in a reunion, where all concerned seek closure.  Whether they get it is another story, of course.

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is certainly an engaging read.  As we zip around the world, checking in on the triplets, we sink into the system the writer has developed for us, starting to see how things fit together. A focal point of the novel is the idea of a system, an overarching key to all things, and that ties in nicely with Sebastian’s work on the brain and the idea of nature versus nurture.  There’s also the puzzle that one of Sebastian’s colleagues, the beautiful, multi-talented and possibly insane Jennifer Travers becomes obsessed with.  It’s a fiendish conundrum posed by an anonymous group, but the more clues she finds, the more everything seems to be pointing towards Sebastian, and everyone around him.

Family is also a major theme of the book.  Our triplets are not as close as one would expect, or as they would like, and one fetaure of the book is the search for the reason for this awkwardness.  The death of a woman the three siblings were close to is a catalyst for the split, but not the cause, and the writer suggests that there’s more to the story than this, another secret pushing the three apart.

What struck me most about Svensson’s novel is the very English humour, reminding me of writers I read many moons ago, such as Kingsley Amis and Tom Sharpe.  The text is littered with dry wit, and the action can turn rather farcical at times.  The LICS is a labyrinth where nobody quite knows what the whole point of the organisation is.  Sebastian is cast as the straight man who, quite apart from handling Travers, must cope with several daunting figures: his lover, Laura, a woman who has lost the ability to see in three dimensions; his boss, Corrigan, a scary figure who may be behind everything at the LCIS – and beyond -; and (of course) a certain monkey:

Now he was sitting, as usual, at his desk, diligently collating data on the very moral monkey’s reaction to all the speeches made by Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair during their prime ministerial tenures.  Sebastian had concluded at an early stage that the monkey was a Labour sympathiser…
p.251 (Scribe Publications, 2022)

And that’s all without mentioning his family…

The book is also reminiscent of the work of another English writer, namely David Mitchell.  There’s more than a hint of Cloud Atlas about Svensson’s work, including the parallel structure, going in and out, both starting and finishing in London, as well as the predictions of imminent disaster, as seen in the strand following the doomsday ‘cult’ on Easter Island:

“Look at history, we’ve done it again and again.  Look at this island.  Civilisations have come and gone, and man has been just as guilty for their fall as for their ascent.  Human history is cyclical – you can predict our mistakes.  But the difference, Clara, the difference this time is the extent of the catastrophe.  I mean geographically, culturally, economically – the whole world today is woven into a web so intricate that if a few threads break, the whole world breaks.  That’s what I mean by ‘Gesamt-world’.  We’re pulling each other down into the shit.  If one falls, we all fall.  And we’re going to fall.  Soon.” (p.152)

There are no Cloud Atlas shifts in time, but there’s the same need for the reader to be on their toes, looking for links between the different parts.

I’m not sure it quite lives up to Mitchell’s modern classic, though.  At times, the story can be a little confused with a mish-mash of styles, and I’m not always sure whether the writer is going for humour or insights.  However, the book is always absorbing, building to a climax that is always going to be hard to pull off.  Do we get there?  Just about, well, close enough, anyway…

In any case, A System So Blinding It Is Magnificent is well worth the time spent reading it.  Smalley (whose name is on the cover!) does an excellent job here, making this an intriguing book you’ll probably want to race through to find out what it’s all about.  If you’re hoping for any great insights into the workings of the universe, I’m not sure you’ll find what you’re looking for, but spending some time with the triplets as they attempt to reconnect and sort their lives out is well worth the investment 🙂

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