Sebastian’s a grieving neuroscientist who’s fallen for a patient who can only see in two dimensions. His sister Clara is a recently-fired, anxiety-ridden journalist who’s travelled to Easter Island to find some meaning. His other sister, Matilda, suffers from overwhelming synaesthesia which causes her to be tormented by the colour blue. The three Swedish siblings, who’ve all fallen out of touch and are scattered round the globe, are not in a good place. A phone call from their mother, with some unexpected news, sets in motion a series of events that will bring them back to each other, and set them on the road to healing.
Amanda Svensson’s A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, translated into English from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, is a novel that’s as unwieldy as its title. Spanning multiple continents and main characters, there’s a lot to like within the books’ roomy confines. Unfortunately though, there’s more that just does not work.
A System… is at its best when we’re following Clara in Easter Island, battling with her personal demons against the background of a doomsday cult, led by the charismatic Jordan, who have gathered at the remote location to await the imminent end of the world. Clara arrives on the Island at a low ebb, rattled and insecure after her professional blow, desperately searching for something to hold onto amongst a group of people who are preparing to let everything go. And in that most unlikely of places, she does manage to discover the inner strength she thought had deserted her – this growth happens in a way that feels grounded and honest, and is quite lovely to witness.
Frustratingly, Svensson dedicates many more pages to the story of her brother, who – ironically, considering the nature of his love interest – is a far flatter character. Svensson is drawn to the idiosyncratic, and that trait drowns Sebastian’s sections in a sea of increasingly irritating kookiness; between his 2D sighted lover, the cicada-obsessed colleague who sees conspiracies everywhere, and the ‘very moral monkey’ who has ardent opinions on all of Sebastian’s actions, any authentic, recognisable humanity is roundly swamped.
By the time we meet Matilda – bizarrely late in the lengthy novel – she feels like a total afterthought. On a similar note, compared to all the wild happenings that occur on almost every page, the mother’s revelation for her triplets lands with an underwhelming plop, even with ramifications that should have grown more dramatic with each further reveal. With the sheer volume of narrative stuff that occurs in A System…, beats that should be important often fail to break through the noise, and as a reader, that makes it hard to find any clear thread to latch on to.
A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding had all the ingredients necessary to become a modern masterpiece. Instead, a lack of narrative coherence and a focus on the least interesting characters results in an overlong, quirk-reliant slog.