Rating: 5 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge.
Years ago my friend Sharon lent me Peter Høeg’s novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I loved it.
I read Borderliners as well. I didn’t love it as much as Miss Smilla but it was still good.
I haven’t read anything by Peter Høeg since then. I needed a book set in Denmark or written by someone Danish for the reading challenge I’ve been doing this summer. Looking around online I discovered that Høeg’s latest book was out in paperback. I read the blurb and it sounded like fun.
We meet Susan in the honorary home of Nobel Laureate Andrea Fink. Susan’s just been rescued from a sticky situation in India, along with her family, because the Danish government wants her to use a special skill she has to help them out.
Susan is a physicist. She’s interested in what goes on inside physics more than in how physics explains and predicts the behaviour of matter. She’s manipulative and definitely not monogamous. Susan’s special skill is based on a strange effect her presence has on others. Something about her causes people to reveal their innermost thoughts. Susan’s skill lies in using this strange effect to her advantage, to get what she wants.
As soon as I started reading, I remembered what it was about Høeg’s two previous books that I liked. He presents the barely believable as fact, and his female protagonists have no doubt that what they experience and express is the truth. Despite the oddness of their approach to life, they are solidly dependable, dogged even.
Susan and her family find themselves in a predicament, with criminal charges hanging over them relating to certain activities during a stay in India. A government man thankfully arrives to sort out the mess, but he has a condition. Susan has to use her special skill to find an answer to a specific question.
Susan agrees, but agreement by Susan isn’t ever what it seems. Susan agrees because she wants to know who has put her family in danger.
Her family consists of a husband and twin children. Laban is a celebrated pianist and, like Susan, a UNESCO Cultural Ambassador. Thit is their daughter, precocious and self-assured. Her twin brother Harald is slightly softer as a character. He at least shows affection occasionally and is protective in his own way of his mother.
Surreal events take place. Susan takes them in her stride, sanguine to a fault, analysing the facts, using physics to crack puzzles and keep herself one step ahead of the government man who seems to be trying to manipulate her. Little does he know that he is the one being manipulated.
Susan is an excellent detective. Her powers of observation and perception are second to none. Silence is her friend, and her family respect that. At times they behave like a hive mind, reading each other perfectly and providing a communal solution to a problem. Dysfunctional but in an enviable way.
Her thought processes interested me. She believes that the laws of nature are temporary, that no sooner do you satisfy them than they collapse and reveal that the thing you mistook for conformity is merely a blip in a much larger chaos. She believes that inanimate objects still have some kind of animus, and by talking to and touching objects, we can persuade them to help us. She knows that she’s currently on her own with these beliefs, but is determined to get them recognised. My favourite example of this is when she digs out her old bicycle and needs to restore its equilibrium quickly in order to reach a destination incognito.
I end up putting on an anorak and gloves and getting the Raleigh out of the garage. It’s spent a year there in solitude and looks sorry for itself: the tyres are flat and it needs some tender care and attention. I pump up the tyres, lube the chain and talk nicely to it. It’s as if it lifts its head. Bicycles need someone to talk to them. I decide to mention the fact in the relevant professional fora. Though perhaps not the Academy of Sciences and Letters. The profound scientific truths are no different than any other kind: they must be presented in small measures and with the utmost consideration.
Susan makes me think of Veblen in Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel, both in the way she has particular views on how the world works, and in her attitude to relationships. For many of the same reasons I felt kinship with Veblen, I also felt kinship with Susan. The one major difference about Susan is the trauma at the centre of her life, which Høeg delivers at the centre of the book. Suddenly things slot into place, and the balance between nurture and nature clarifies the Susan we have been travelling with. Here I found similarities between Susan and Lisbeth Salander, in the way a difficult character is institutionalised because of lack of parental responsibility and that then leads to a place of vulnerability that facilitates serious abuse and a response that speaks of no alternative. It made me think about the women I know who are described as strong, in the media’s reductive alternative sense of ball-breaker. I know that in some quarters I’m thought of as strong. From my perspective, it’s messages received from childhood about my natural personality not being socially acceptable (too loud, too wilful, too imaginative, too much) that have clad me in armour and made me rigid. I see that in Susan, too. I wonder how many of the strong women I like and admire that it’s also true for, and how many, like Susan, are on the brink of ending their relationship with a significant other because their emotional armour has no chinks in it.
This is serious stuff, but the book’s not all serious.
There’s more than one moment in the story that made me laugh, but one in particular was perfectly aimed at me. Quite aside from the fact that the answer to the riddle that Susan is trying to solve being stored securely in a too secret government archive, Susan’s attitude to museums delighted me.
I’ve always avoided museums. Even the Technical Museum at Elsinore. It’s enough trying to come to terms with my own past, without being lumbered with society’s too.
We go through the door and come out in the exhibition room a bit further on. I was here once as a child, on Sightseeing Day. I can’t remember if Dorthea was our guide, but what I do recall is the bleakness that resides among the historical remains of the medieval city. The present day might not be that cheerful, but the past was worse. To me, the brick foundations whisper not of romance and adventure in the colourful Middle Ages, but of disease, dungeons and rape, and an average lifespan that would have me long since dead. Not to mention a cuisine that peaked with salted herring and gruel.
In among the story of Susan, her marriage, her family, her special power and the way she abuses it, Høeg has written a political commentary about the way politicians and academic thinkers have failed society. The crux of the novel is the answer to the question the government man wants an answer to. The answer isn’t written down anywhere, but is in the heads of the people who reached a conclusion and made a set of predictions. Høeg expresses an opinion on the state of the world in 2018 that I found intriguing. The key points are that the Western welfare-society model has been allowed to break down because the expense is unsustainable, that education systems are stuck in the 20th century and are unfit for preparing students for the 21st century world with its changed employment and economic norms, that imbalances in the system won’t be corrected because they haven’t been acknowledged because politicians are too busy jostling for position and interest groups are too busy fighting for a share of the spoils. Susan meets the former governor of the National Bank who explains this theory to her. Three things that Høeg puts into his mouth gave me pause.
Europe’s a comfort zone. We live in a cinema with family entertainment projected onto all four walls. The collapse isn’t some far-off future. It’s already started.
The problem isn’t outside us. The problem is us. Our overconsumption and borrowing.
There isn’t a single politician in Europe who isn’t talking growth. But growth in its present form isn’t viable any more. It’s past its use-by date.
I’d be interested to know what Høeg has read to reach this conclusion. I’d like to see his working out. His idea seems to have a basis in Marxist theory, which holds that the repeated economic crises that have cycled Western economies between boom and slump since the 1970s are evidence that capitalism is in crisis. Marxist theory tells us that economic growth can’t be stimulated at will, despite what Keynesian theory tells us, and government intervention in the economy that pursues economic growth is at best a misguided action. I don’t fully agree, but I do think that something fundamental has changed that means economic theories developed in the 20th century and rooted in the 19th century are redundant.
There’s a strangeness to the ending. I half expected it to turn into a dream, in the way Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil turns into a dream. The final chapter reminded me of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s hope that the Wizard can take her back to Kansas in his hot air balloon. In the end, all Dorothy can do is wish herself back home, where it transpires that her adventures have all been a fever dream. It’s not so different for Susan.
I really enjoyed this novel. It’s made me remember Høeg exists and I’ll investigate the books he wrote in between the three I’ve now read.