Review: Indigo by Clemens J. Setz. A postmodern puzzle that is both intriguing and infuriating.

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If any of you are old enough to remember the 90s, you might remember the whole crazy New Age belief in Indigo children.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll briefly explain: back in the 1990s, there were a group of people that believed that the year 2000 would signal an age where a new species of ‘enlightened’ children would be born.  They would be of superior intelligence and were highly emotional.  They would probably have psychic powers and they would transform the world for the better. (If you want to read more about this, Jon Ronson documents the phenomenon brilliantly in his book ‘Lost At Sea,’ where mothers of ADHD children were led to believe by some crackpot or other that their disruptive offspring were actually Indigo children.)

In Clemens J. Setz’s book, Indigo children suffer with an illness. It has no symptoms for them…however, all the adults that surround them become affected with dizziness, vomiting, intense headaches.  The intelligent children are society’s outcasts, sent to live and study at the remote Helianau Institute in the mountains where they are cared for by the rather dubious character, Dr. Rudolph.

The book tells the story of…wait for it…Clemens Setz who trains as a teacher at the institute.  Yes, the author is a character in the book.  This in itself is an interesting concept.

After a number of incidents (which I don’t want to spoil for anyone) Clemens is asked to leave.  He continues to investigate into the methods of the school which the reader explores through various documents included in the book. There are photographs, interview transcripts, snippets of academic reports and newspaper clippings.

The multi modal aspect of the book is one of the features that makes the book so intriguing.  The reader feels like they are part of this investigation, trying to piece the plot and mystery together through the various artefacts.

Alongside Clemens’ story there is a second narrative; that of Robert, a former Indigo child of the Helianau Institute.  An often unpleasant and unsettling character, (he loves nothing more than taking photos of animal experiments for his artist’s portfolio) Robert is also investigating… an incident his former teacher Clemens Setz is reported to have been involved in.

And so the reader is simultaneously trying to piece his story together, on a slightly different timeline to Clemens’. Are you still with me?

So, is it any good?  Well, yes…and no.

There is no doubt that the author Clemens J. Setz deserves every accolade he has been given for this book.  The ability to write in all manner of styles and tones to produce this book is a feat in itself.  The variety of documents adds credibility to a situation that you may otherwise struggle to suspend disbelief for and some of the studies he writes about are entirely based on fact, (I know because I checked) which shows how it has been painstakingly researched and put together.

The plot is interesting, although it drags at times, particularly in the first half, until we come to a revelation about one of the main characters.  The switch in narrative focus between Clemens and Robert keeps up the momentum.

Book groups would probably go wild over it as there are lots of themes it addresses: parenting, social responsibility, racism, medical research, trust, educational approaches.  There is also the issue of whether or not the children are actually suffering from a real disorder or whether the parents are just ‘burnt out’ by looking after their demanding offspring. Certainly it is easy to spot traits of other conditions in some of the child characters: attachment disorder, autism, depression.

So if this book is so interesting why use the word ‘infuriating’?  I don’t want to give spoilers so all I’ll say is that some of the seemingly most important threads of investigation, are never resolved.  I’m sure it is a deliberate move by Clemens J. Setz to leave some questions unanswered so it leads to discussion, but all it did was make me feel like I’d been played!

However, for the next two days, the book was all I could think and talk about.

Which is why I find it impossible to give it a rating out of 10.  I might feel infuriated but you can’t deny the man’s genius.

If you want to hear Clemens J. Setz talk about the book and why he put himself in his own story, there is an interview with him in the second half of this Guardian Books Podcast about literary dystopias.  (At about 14.48 mins in)


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