Picador, $32.99 pb, 384 pp, 9781760557256
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.