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Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect review - Nordic noir turns surreal | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect review - Nordic noir turns surreal

Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect review - Nordic noir turns surreal

Conspiracy thriller from the 'Miss Smilla' author mixes physics and superpowers

Peter Høeg: pseudo-nerderyHenrik Saxgren

Peter Høeg is still overwhelmingly known for a novel published a quarter of a century ago. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow featured a half-Inuit woman whose suspicion over a young neighbour’s death in Copenhagen lures her from Denmark back to Greenland.

There was a film made in English by Bille August starring Julia Ormond, but Høeg, who is now 60, has hardly flooded the market since. The Susan Effect is only his fifth novel since 1992.

Miss Smilla was a globe-trotting precursor to Nordic noir, softening us all up for the amped-up stories of skulduggery in the senior echelons of the Danish state. (Borgen was the smiley, soothing antidote.) He’s back on similar territory in The Susan Effect. Once more there’s a conspiracy, a secret island where murky things happen, and murder is covered up – though not just the one this time.

The narrator is Susan Svendsen, a super-talented physicist married to a much loved composer called Laban (meaning scamp). They have 16-year-old twins, Harald and Thit. When we first encounter the family they’re all in a spot of bother after a series of misadventures in South Asia. Laban is being chased by the Indian mafia after seducing a maharaja’s daughter. Harald has been smuggling antiquities out of Nepal. Thit has run off with a priest from Kolkata. As for Susan, she’s in prison for causing grievous bodily harm to a casual pick-up.

A mysterious former representative of the Danish government called Thorkild Hegn intervenes to get them off the hook if Susan will in return do a little job for him: find out about something called the Future Commission. Back in Copenhagen, Susan embarks on her task only to discover that asking anyone about the Future Commission induces silence, terror and, intermittently, murder. She and Harald barely escape death, leaping from their car just before it’s crushed.

The Susan Effect by Peter HøegNordic noir often features cold-blooded Scandinavians keeping a cool head, their chilliness a necessary counterpoint to a lot of hot-headed derangement. Think of all the villains in The Bridge, or the nutters who cross the path of Harry Hole in Jo Nesbø’s policiers. Insane megalomaniacs, the lot. There are more here too, going all the way to the top of Danish society. Høeg interposes his own twist in the form of the Svendsen family, who all possess one superpower or another. Laban can charm crowds into a trance, Harald has "a memory like flypaper", Thit cracks computer passwords for fun, while the eponymous effect makes those who come within Susan's orbit vulnerable to bursts of uncontrollable openness. It means she can extract the truth without thumbscrews.

The Svendsens are in essence a brainiac version of the Incredibles, minus the branded superhero livery. Their specialness makes for some playful surrealism, but plotwise it’s also a get-out-jail card – sometimes literally. Perhaps fearful that all these superpowers look infantile, Høeg’s trick for occluding any cracks in plausibility is to make Susan a kind of empirical rationalist with an explanation for everything based in physics. “People are small next to physics,” she explains. She would say that, being the disciple of a disciple of Nils Bohr (this is a homage in passing to great Danes, so there’s a lot of name-dropping: at one point Susan has a one-to-one with Gorbachev). “In quantum physics,” she tells Laban, whom she has sexually betrayed roughly once a year throughout their marriage, “we say that divorcing from a profound romantic relationship takes seven years on average.” The cloak of pseudo-nerdery is not always as dazzling as the author intends. The same law of diminishing returns applies to the many throat-clearing digressions and retroactive tangents. It means that Susan and her family are rather hard to know, and harder to like.

Meanwhile, as her investigations proceed, a conspiracy unfurls in which cynicism about the dark state meshes with a throwback plot about nuclear apocalypse. The Future Commission turns out to be a body established in the early 1960s composed of prodigiously bright people whose pooled talents established a practical basis for predicting the future. Susan is a resourceful action heroine, part Lisbeth Salander, part Saga Norén, fearless with a crowbar and a screwdriver. But her effect on this reader was not wholly overpowering.

The Svendsens are in essence a brainiac version of the Incredibles, minus the branded superhero livery


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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