I didn’t write this review. I stole it. Or so a review that echoes the framing conceit of Alex Landragin’s elegant and unusual début might begin. This richly allusive, speculative historical novel opens with a preface from the book’s self-described ‘adopted parent’, the fictionalised ‘Alex Landragin’. Following the sudden death of the ‘Baroness’, an ardent and obsessive bibliophile with a keen interest in Charles Baudelaire, this ‘second-generation Parisian bookbinder’ finds himself in possession of a mysterious loose-leaf manuscript. Despite the Baroness’s strict injunction not to read it, he finally succumbs to curiosity and devours it in ‘one fevered sitting, on a winter’s night so cold ice was forming on the Seine’.
He discovers three separate stories: ‘The Education of a Monster’, a short work that appears to be by Baudelaire; ‘City of Ghosts’, a noir romance/thriller set in Paris on the eve of the German occupation; and ‘Tales of the Albatross’, the ‘strangest of the three’, an ‘autobiography of a kind of deathless enchantress’. Despite its unlikely contents, the document purports to be the lost manuscript that Walter Benjamin had with him while trying to escape occupied France in 1940. The bookbinder advises that there are ‘at least seven’ ways to interpret the text. It is at this point that the reader must decide how she wishes to proceed: with the book as bound, or, by turning to page 150, for the start of the ‘Baroness sequence’, an alternate reading order that follows the ‘jumble of figures scrawled on the first page’ of the manuscript.
Inspired by a tale once told to the author by poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe and also by stories written as part of Landragin’s blog, ‘The Daily Fiction Project’, for which he wrote and published a story daily for eight months, Crossings is a nuanced exploration of love, memory, and identity. Central to the puzzle-like narrative is the concept of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, dubbed ‘crossing’. For a crossing to occur, the two participants must stare into each other’s eyes for several minutes until they experience a feeling of ‘frothy joy’, later described as ‘a most pleasant sensation, as if the inside of [their] body was suddenly no longer flesh and blood but a freshly poured glass of champagne, full of bubbles ascending … into the sky’. Depending on the circumstances, these crossings can be done with both participants remaining aware of the process, or ‘blind’ with only one fully aware of what has transpired. As a narrative device this is mostly successful, and it allows for a compelling overarching narrative to be threaded through the four discrete sections of the text.
Crossings is a highly ambitious and inventive work, dense with historical and literary allusion and populated by fictional and historical figures including Baudelaire, Benjamin, Jeanne Duval, and Coco Chanel. Numerous others also make cameo appearances. There is much here to appeal to bibliophiles and literary-minded Francophiles, although the blend of truth and fiction can result in some uncomfortable moments, such as a brutal scene late in the novel involving the violent removal of teeth. By contrast, discovering the potential inspiration behind Chanel’s nautical-inspired clothing is entertaining.
Crossing is not only an intriguing narrative device, Landragin also uses it to explore the impact that translating a soul from one body to another can have on identity and the self. After all, ‘the manner in which the soul adheres with the new body is never quite the same’. The well-travelled French-Armenian-Australian author also explores ideas of exile (from one’s country, culture, and even one’s own body) through his characters’ peregrinations. Questions of privilege are examined through the lenses of gender, race, education, class, and appearance as his two central characters move through the world taking on, and being influenced by, new identities.
Crossings is set across multiple locations, from the fictional island of Oaeetee to a plantation in antebellum America, but Paris is at its heart. Landragin describes the City of Light with familiarity and clear-eyed affection and to great atmospheric effect. Moments of beauty and brutality are studded through the narrative as the novel addresses the real and metaphorical horrors of war, slavery, colonisation, and occupation, as well as the solaces of art, literature, love, and knowledge.
This remarkable book-loving novel is a celebration of the art and power of storytelling in which stories are variously described as being like ‘pearls on a necklace’ and ‘brightly painted carousel horses’. Crossings is brimming with references and allusions to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the works of Walter Benjamin, Edgar Allen Poe, and other literary and cultural touchstones. Elements of the narrative are also reminiscent of more contemporary works by David Mitchell, Claire North, and Jane Rawson.
This is a playful, intricately plotted work with not one but two satisfying endings that still leave some questions tantalisingly unanswered. (Curious readers are encouraged to seek out a bloodthirstier version of the preface published by Catapult, as well as Landragin’s entertainingly parodic ‘Agent Query Letter #127’, in which he pitches his ‘unclassifiable literary mongrel’ to a hypothetical literary agent and alludes to the possibility of a sequel.)
At its best, reading fiction offers its own kind of three-way crossing, between author, characters, and reader. At the end of Crossings, readers may find themselves temporarily doubting reality before gazing with a new curiosity, or apprehension, into the eyes of friends and lovers.