Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Crossings, by Alex Landragin, has a very unusual storyline including love, which ‘thrives on ephemera: hunches, gut feelings, obscure clues, and all the fuel it needs’ (118); murder, leaving its victims with empty eye sockets; treachery, ‘knowing Chanel’s henchman would be listening… I took off my shoes…took my blue suitcase… (and) ran in my socks down Rue Dombasle’ (117); a passion for literature, hence the formation of the Baudelaire Society and the desire for ownership of a particular manuscript; and metaphysical beliefs (metempsychosis), the contention that it is possible for ‘the soul of a human being to cross from one body into another’, (113) with the consciousness and memories of an individual being transported into the other body.
It is also a trip through history set mainly in Paris but also crossing to North America and the Pacific.
The brain-child of Alex Landragin, a French-Armenian-Australian writer, now residing in Los Angeles, this is his first novel. He does however have a background in travel journalism and essays which have appeared in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Review of Books. This novel is the result of his blog, The Daily Fiction Project, for which he wrote and published a story every day for eight months.
Crossings has been written in three parts. The first, ‘The Education of a Monster’ is a letter to an illiterate girl from the poet Charles Baudelaire. The second, ‘City of Ghosts’ covers a strange romance, in Paris, just as the Germans are advancing in 1940. While the third, ‘Tales of the Albatross’ appears to be the autobiography of a life that does not end. They are all linked and tell the tale of two lost souls as they travel through several lifetimes.
To add to the uniqueness of this novel, readers are given the choice of how to progress through the book. They can follow the conventional way and read from first page to last or follow the Baroness sequence, beginning at page 150 and following the numbers in brackets at the end of each section.
I read this book both ways, first the conventional way and then following the Baroness pagination. I felt more comfortable with the traditional reading, but with both readings, there were times when I became quite confused as the narrators, as well as time periods in history, changed. Changes in gender throughout the novel also added to the confusion. I suggest for future readers that, if they keep beside them paper and pen where they can list the changes in character and settings, some of the confusion might be eliminated.
However, having said that, I did enjoy reading this unusual novel which had an intriguing story line, beautiful descriptions of various human characteristics and personalities, as well as the painting of pictures in readers’ minds of Paris and the modifications it underwent over 150 years. The reader is at various times transported from the dark, damp old Gothic place,– ‘the Paris of the last King of the French, a more intimate Paris, where the poor lived above the rich…where rats roamed the streets and where rivulets of sewage trickled down twisting alleys’ (232). This was a place where ‘misery was on constant display and opulence hid behind the high walls of hotels particuliers’ (232). At other times we are in the modern Paris of wide boulevards, train stations and gas lighting. One could clearly picture what it was like to walk those streets.
At the centre of this novel is the all-consuming desire of various parties to obtain the antique red leather-bound notebook, with gold-leaf embossing on the spine and cover, which contained the manuscript of The Education of a Monster, Ch. Baudelaire.
The first words written in this work were: As I write these words, it occurs to me that I have never known a tale to be so beyond belief as that which I am about to relate to you, dear girl. Yet nothing I have written has ever been so true. Paradox, all is paradox. (80)
This book is a puzzle, a love story over lifetimes and a wildly imaginative adventure, one that will intrigue many readers.
By Alex Landragin
$ 32.99; 384pp