Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2022

A System so Magnificent it is Blinding, by Amanda Svensson, translated by Nichola Smalley

Well, this was a first, I’ve never read anything set on Easter Island before!

A System so Magnificent it is Blinding is a chunkster of a novel by Swedish author Amanda Svensson.  It’s a family saga of sorts, tracing the lives of triplets Sebastian, Clara and Matilda Isaksson as they come to terms with The Family Secret, revealed to them by their mother in the wake of their father’s disappearance.  The novel begins with a sparkling introduction to Sebastian, who is a somewhat stolid young man working in a research institute in London — where he (like everyone else) has no idea about what they are actually researching.  Sebastian’s defining characteristic is Not Getting Involved, so he ignores all the communications he receives from his mother and his siblings, and fends off attention from females including Jennifer Travis who might, or might not, fancy him.  It’s hard to tell, especially because this first part of the novel is often so amusing. He does eventually succumb to one of his research subjects, but I shall say no more about that…

The next part takes a much darker tone.  It brings us to Clara, a journalist who’s just lost her job and under the misapprehension that a story about Easter Island might launch her freelance career, has travelled there.

Here I must insert the baggage that I brought to this part of the story.  My knowledge of Easter Island is confined to a mental image of its monumental statues called moai, and — from my reading of Jared Diamond’s bestseller Collapse (2005) — my understanding of the environmental lesson that derives from their existence. The moai, created by the inhabitants of Easter Island during the 13th–16th centuries, were included by Diamond as an example of a society which willfully chose to ignore the signs of impending doom and went on destroying their environment in order to build their statues so that eventually they destroyed their society altogether. Diamond’s theory is contested, but that hasn’t altered my mental image of Easter Island  — I imagine it as a bleak landscape dotted about with a lot of statues.

Easter Island statues (Wikipedia)

If Svensson’s story is to be believed, the bleak landscape part is correct, but now Easter Island is a tourist destination, with campsites, hotels good and bad, and some beautiful beaches. It’s the setting for Svensson’s characters to pursue their part in the intricacies of the plot, which gets messier by the page. Nevertheless, for me, Svensson’s light-hearted humour was not enough to dispel the sense of existential doom that troubles us all.  The planet is in a terrible state, and Easter Island is a portent of what might lie ahead.  Tourism there, with all the carbon emissions that such tourism entails (unless it’s offset, which is what I do when I fly), is a reminder that people like the character Clara who purport to care, won’t forego making unnecessary flights around the planet. (She flies there twice in the course of the novel.)  I read Collapse all those years ago so that I would be an informed citizen, much good it did me.  I found myself reading this part of Svensson’s novel feeling as her characters do: depressed and hopeless.

Ok, off my soapbox…

Easter Island is where Clara goes to interview a doomsday cult leader called Jordan, who denies that he’s leading a cult and is (of course) terribly gorgeous.  But, in common with her sibling Sebastian, Clara is Not Interested.  She only sleeps with unsatisfactory men because she Does Not Get Involved. She’s not even willing to have a friendly relationship with Elif, an anorexic former film star who takes her into her posh hotel when the one Clara booked into turns out to have unwanted wildlife as fellow-guests.

Clara’s other sibling, Matilda, however, does have a relationship with an apparently nice man called Billy in Sweden and is stepmother to his offspring Siri.  But she is Not Happy either because she has synesthesia and can’t tolerate the colour blue. (It will not escape anyone’s notice that our planet is the blue one.)

I realise that I haven’t explained what this novel is about… and that is because I am not really sure.  At 527 pages this is a brick of a novel, full of puzzles and contradictions; systems large and small which are messed up by chaotic events; plus there is a Very Moral Monkey and a lot of cicadas. Except for the middle bit which is gloomy because of the impending climate catastrophe, the novel is joyous and funny, and uplifting in a bizarre kind of way.  Most of it was quick and easy to read, and I would have romped through it in no time if not for my eyes playing up again so that I could only read in half-hour stretches.

If pushed to come to some kind of coherent conclusion, I would say this: There are three characters who think they are connected by birth, and then they discover that one of them is possibly not, and each one thinks that he/she is the one who doesn’t belong because of being so different to the others, and then they realise: Vive la difference! and that, whatever, they are connected.   And this is blindingly obvious, but people are not very good at seeing what is blindingly obvious.

Susie Feay review at The Guardian points to the influence of Svensson’s work as the translator of Ali Smith’s playful experimental fiction, but I think Svensson is more fun.

This is Svensson’s profile at the Scribe Publishing website:

Amanda Svensson grew up in Malmö. She studied creative writing and has translated books by Ali Smith, Tessa Hadley, and Kristen Roupenian. A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding was awarded the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and Svenska Dagbladet’s Literature Prize. It is shortlisted for Tidningen Vi’s Literature Prize.

Image credit:

Outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, the quarry of the Moais with many uncompleted statues. By Rivi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=681941

Author: Amanda Svensson
Title: A System so Magnificent it is Blinding (Ett system så magnifikt att det bländar)
Translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2022, first published in 2019
ISBN: 9781925849936, pbk., 527 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. This does sound fun! And would be a good one for anyone doing one of those read-around-the-world challenges, for the setting anyway. I don’t know the first thing about Easter Island (well I do now!)

    Like

    • Hi Laura, lovely to hear from you!
      Your question made me wonder if it counts as a ‘place’ as in ‘read-around-the-world’ so I looked it up. Apparently about 5000 people live on the island but I haven’t been able to find out if they live sustainably or if supplies are freighted in somehow. It would be interesting to know more about how they manage…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure I can tackle another chunkster this year, but you have made this sound very tempting…
    Not sure I can think of another story about triplets either.

    Like

    • No indeed, neither can I…
      *pause*
      Google ‘triplets + novel’
      I should have guessed, there’s a whole list of them at Goodreads. The only author I’ve heard of is Liane Moriarty, who has apparently written Three Wishes.
      Three Babies and a Bonus sounds like fun!

      Like

      • Ahhh well there you go! I have read Three Wishes too but it’s a light, fluffy story – fun at the time but not particularly memorable.

        Like

        • Sometimes, that’s exactly the kind of book you need…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds fascinating and quite unusual Lisa – not sure I’ve come across an Easter Island novel before, and my Eldest Child was obsessed with the place at one point!!

    Like

    • LOL it looks like this novel wins the prize for the most unusual setting!

      Liked by 1 person


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