Review: Septimania

Life and love beyond a single universe


By Jonathan Levi
Duckworth Overlook, £18.99

Some novels are so rich in all their aspects that not even a lengthy review can do justice to the myriad gifts they offer. Jonathan Levi's Septimania is one such novel.

In essence, Septimania's theme is multiple universes, which -the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger hypothesised - are not alternatives but universes where everything happens simultaneously. In a thought experiment, Schrödinger submitted that, depending on the vagaries of subatomic events, a cat in quantum superposition might emerge dead and alive at the same time. The juxtaposition of Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues serves as a leitmotif to these parallel states.

The poignant love story that straddles this parallelism revolves around Malory, an organ-tuner dallying over a PhD on Isaac Newton, and Louiza, a mathematician who has just received her PhD.

They meet when Louiza climbs to the steeple of St George's, Whistler Abbey, and finds Malory toiling over an obstruction in the organ's pipes. Louiza solves Malory's problem by finding an apple pip lodged in one of the pipes. They talk, Malory about his thesis on Newton's quest to discover the One True Truth - the United Field Theory - that guides the universe, Louiza about her solution, through negativity, to the unsolvable principle of division by zero. A solution, she adds, that can be both beneficial and dangerous. They become lovers. Then she leaves and, to Malory's anguish, disappears.

Not even a lengthy review could do it justice

Desperately searching for her, Malory discovers that she has been professionally engaged by some mysterious Americans.

While he searches, the testament of his late grandmother takes him to Rome. There, he discovers that he has inherited the throne of the arcane Kingdom of Septimania. Further encounters reveal that, through various liaisons of former Septimania sovereigns, he is also the King of the Jews, the Holy Roman Emperor (therefore King of the Christians) the Caliph of the Muslims and, not least, as Isaac Newton's progeny, the King of Science.

During this parallel life, he meets Louiza on a few occasions. On the first, he discovers that she is pregnant by him. He rushes her to hospital but loses her again when the mysterious Americans abduct her.

On the penultimate occasion, advised that Louiza's work on division by zero, having prevented a number of terrorist attacks, has made her a target who must remain secluded, he ceases searching for her and their daughter, Ottavia, also a mathematician.

In his seventies, having examined his many failings in a Dantean journey to his own Inferno, he finally understands that sympathy - love - is the basic force of the One True Rule.

He also ascertains that Newton had identified this force as the unifier of the four fundamental interactions that guide the universe. The fact that Newton died before he could expound his discovery prompts Malory to finish his thesis and finally bond with Louiza and Ottavia.

Septimania is saturated with extraordinary characters, incidents, and narratives. Jonathan Levi, his sails boosted by enviable erudition, navigates his metaphysical sea with commendable dexterity, offering the reader a sample of the boundless joys of literature.

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