Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2020

A Universe of Sufficient Size, by Miriam Sved

A Universe of Sufficient Size is a richly satisfying novel: it had me completely absorbed from start to finish.

There’s a brief enigmatic prologue in Brooklyn in 1950, and then the novel moves to Sydney in 2007.  Illy’s father has just died after years of dementia, but it’s the living who are bothering her more.  Her father was a thoroughly disagreeable man, and she had her mother had learned to tiptoe around his anger and his moods.  In the new calm, Illy, feeling an itchy entrapment in the responsibilities of being an only child, might now be able to persuade her frail mother into a retirement home, and she might be able to negotiate the issues that have arisen with her young adult children.  Josh is about to jettison his almost-finished degree for a far-fetched project in an open-plan office with ping-pong tables and hip American nerds.  Zoe, OTOH, is embarking on a relationship that really challenges her mother’s tolerant and accepting nature.

And then the notebook announces its presence…

On the same day Eszter moves in the notebook appears on the kitchen counter.  It is small and unremarkable, and Illy thinks at first that it must be her mother’s address book and leaves it where it is.  But some time later that afternoon the book migrates from the bench to the middle of the kitchen table, and announces its presence forcefully and directly.  A message for Illy: some offering her mother is trying to signpost.  The fact that Eszter is supposed to be napping — Illy doesn’t even know when she left her bedroom — raises the frequency of the message to a pitch only Illy can hear.

She gives in to the notebook’s demand, opening the hard brown cover just an inch to peek inside.

Handwritten Hungarian.  Neat, forward-sloping writing; not like the cramped arthritic script her mother has now. (p.5)

Statue of Anonymus, Budapest (Source: Wikipedia*)

This journal dated Budapest 1938, alternates with the Sydney narrative.  It tells the story of a group of five friends, all gifted mathematicians, but subjected to restrictions on their studies at university due to anti-Jewish laws limiting their participation in Hungary’s public and economic life.  Eszter is engaged to Tibor, Levi is keen on Ildiko, and Pali, modelled on the real life genius Paul Erdős, is an eccentric who is only interested in mathematics.  These five meet each week at Budapest’s statue of Anonymus, where they share their projects and work through conjectures together.   But the winds of war are blowing, and the group is keenly aware that when Hungary joins the Axis, they will be vulnerable to the full force of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Back in the Sydney narrative, Illy is irritated, then intrigued and finally forced into reassessing her entire family life by the contents of the notebook.  The novel is so artfully constructed that the twist in the tale is completely unexpected.

The characterisation of the family and its dynamics is excellent, and often amusing.  Here is Josh at his grandfather’s wake:

The large pastel-trimmed room where the reception is being held is full to bursting with old people, and perhaps this is one reason why Josh can’t keep his hands off his new phone.  It is so reassuringly fresh and young.  So new that almost no one else in Australia has even seen one.  He keeps running his fingers over the screen surreptitiously (he hopes surreptitiously), mentally cataloguing all the phone’s sweet contours.  The on-off switch, the volume control, headphone and charger jacks.  This inventory always leads to the smooth divot of the ‘home’ button, which he clicks to feel its satisfying clickiness, and the phone lights up in his pocket, inviting the swoosh of his index finger, a powerful left-to-right sweep to bring it alive.  Looking down at the screen he can see the top row of ‘apps’, an alluring promise of digital escape, but out of the corner of his eye he can also see his mother, and he has a feeling she is monitoring his performance today and factoring it into her decision.  And anyway, here comes one of the old people, shuffling androgynously towards him, ready to tell him what a good man his grandfather was.

He looks around for escape but all the people he knows are unapproachably grieving — grieving in a way that Josh can’t help feeling as a bit of a reproach, a bit of an accusation. (p. 25)

Zoe, OTOH, is hovering near her grandmother…

her heavy eye make-up has been cried all over her face and she holds a balled-up tissue. Overdoing it — it’s not like she had some great relationship with the old man. And Josh’s mother, grieving in her large, outward way, accosting people with teary hugs.  (p.26)

This technique of narrating the Sydney story through the perspectives of exasperated Illy, laid-back Zoe and self-absorbed Josh grounds the novel in contemporary urban life, but it’s also a marked contrast with the drama of Eszter’s journal with its risky trip to Vienna in hope of evacuating Pali to safety through the auspices of the university there.

BTW There is some maths in this novel, but you don’t need to understand a word of it.

Miriam Sved has also written a novel called Game Day, which is apparently about the pathology of an AFL club, its players and its fans, and she’s edited anthologies including

  • Just Between Us: Australian writers tell the truth about female friendship;
  • Mothers and Others: Australian writers on why not all women are mothers and not all mothers are the same; and
  • #MeToo: Stories from the Australian movement

Find out more about the author at her website.

*Image credit: By Miklós Ligeti – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=491373

Author: Miriam Sved
Title: A Universe of Sufficient Size
Cover design: Kid_Ethic.com
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781743535127, pbk., 320 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

 

 


Responses

  1. Oh how I love that title! I can’t tell you how often I have purchased a book based on the title and have then been disappointed. I don’t think that will be the case with this one. Now that I am a full-time traveller (albeit currently in an arrested state) I only purchase eBooks. I started to jot it down, then saw the maths comment (I hyperventilate at the sight of an equation), almost crossed it out, then put my trust in you as always and it is high on my list to purchase. Thanks for another thoughtful review.

    Like

    • LOL Two of the characters don’t get on with maths either, and neither does the author. I think she’s been clever: each of the brief bits of text about maths translates into ‘there was a difficult maths problem that nobody had solved yet’.
      What are you dreaming of, in your ‘arrested state’ when you can’t even travel in and out of Qld?

      Like

      • Just dreaming of all the places we were going to before the pandemic sent us home. I guess the places will all still be there . . . let’s hope I am!

        Like

        • For my French class this week we have to discuss ‘The Future of Travel’ and I have to confess to being pessimistic. There are a lot of places in Europe I’d still like to see before I’m too old to travel and I can’t see that happening for a year or more…

          Like

          • I’m still hanging on to the hope that the end of this year could be possible. But I get a lot of ‘tell ‘er she’s dreaming’ comments so I think I must be ridiculously over-optimistic!

            Like

  2. And.. it is now on my reading list! Soon….

    Like

    • I’m intrigued that I’ve seen so little about this book considering it came out last year. When I had finished my review I hunted out the author’s website (because I’d never heard of her, the anthologies she’s edited are not really my thing) and was surprised to find that this book has been widely reviewed by everyone important, but I had missed it all.

      Like

      • Everyone *else * important 😂 Thank you for drawing it to my attention.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was sent this recently for review and am keen to read it. To hear that you found it richly satisfying and compelling cheers me immensely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you will love the characterisation of the young people…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m in need of something that’s a sure thing. I’ve spent yesterday dithering over this latest buddy read title but have decided to abandon it now as it’s so aimless and abstract.

        Like

  4. This sounds excellent.

    PS: I had to Qwant OTOH! :-)

    Like

    • Oops, sorry!
      It not so long ago that I had to Google it myself…

      Like

      • No worries.

        Learning at least one thing per day is good for the mind.

        Liked by 1 person


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