Reviewed by Robert Goodman.
By Alex Landragin, Picador.
From its opening pages Crossings, the debut novel by Alex Landragin, offers reader a choice. It turns out that there are two ways to read the book. Either as a series of three related short stories or in the ‘Baroness order’ with the chapters of the three stories interleaved. Readers are promised that the Baroness order make the whole read more like a novel so this is the order in which I tackled it. Having done that though, it is difficult to judge how its mysteries would play out if read in linear fashion. Helpfully, as well as a key at the beginning of the book, each chapter in the Baroness order ends with a pointer to the page number of the following chapter.
The first story, The Education of a Monster, is set in 1865 and is purportedly one written by the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire in the last year of his life. The second, is set in 1940s Paris and sees the narrator meet a mysterious woman who tries to get him to bid on a manuscript version of this story. The final tale starts back in 1791 on a South Pacific island but slowly moves through the years to pass through the first story and catch up with the second. The Baroness order starts at the end of the second story and then jumps between the three, generally in order, to reveal and then explore the metaphysical driver behind these tales.
Much like many of the works of David Mitchell, the driving force behind Crossings is the ability to “cross”. That is, for a person to swap souls with another person. To say much more about this ability would be to reveal too much about the plot but suffice to say, this revelation would come at different points in the narrative depending on which order the stories are read and so the impact of that knowledge on the reader will be different. The Baroness order places that reveal and all of the rules attendant with it early on as it appears in the third story.
Crossings is an enjoyable romp across the ages using an old literary conceit of ageless souls to make sense of the world as it changed. This gives the book, particularly the chapters in the third tale, feel even more like a series of shorter stories. While the stories themselves are interesting, much of the potential drama is dampened by the delivery of many of these histories as straight information dumping narrative.
Mitchell’s interconnecting books all came down to an eternal struggle between light and dark. While there is a hint of conflict in Crossings it never feels quite threatening enough. There are hints connecting the present day prologue with the text, but they are not sufficient, even after a rereading of that prologue, to intuit what those connections might be or what their significance is. So that in the end, while there is plenty of enjoyment to be had, the point of it all remains unclear which is likely to leave some readers unsatisfied.
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