Book review: Crossings by Alex Landragin

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Coming with a truly original idea is a challenge.

After all, thousands of storytelling, whether in oral or written form, have ensured that there are precious few new ideas under the sun; in fact, storytelling tropes are so well ingrained in our culture, that students of writing are taught about things like the hero’s journey, the various types of archetypes and so forth, the message being that if you think of it, someone has likely thought of it before you.

But as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton proved last year, it is possible to take well-worn cliches and give them a bright and shiny makeover, something Alex Landragin does with impressive originality in his beguiling novel Crossings.

A series of three interconnected stories recounted by a Parisian bookbinder who ends up in possession of a mysterious manuscript when its wealthy owner passes away and no one comes to collect her possession from its temporary home, Crossings is a brilliantly clever tale of two lovers who find themselves in pursuit of one another over multiple lifetimes and across great swathes of a rapidly-changing world.

But it’s not just the narrative premise that is astoundingly entrancing.

Landragin has also written this utterly-consuming tale, which demands to be read as quickly and immersively as possible – dipping in and out of it is well nigh impossible not because you can’t do it, but because you won’t want to do it, so arresting is its tale – in such a way that you can either read it from front to back cover, or follow what he terms the “Baroness style”, after the book’s onetime owner, which sends you hopping back and forth across the book, much like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type scenario.

“‘I was Jeanne once,’ spoke those blighted, shrivelled lips. ‘I was beautiful once. But I am beautiful no longer. In my ugliness I have discovered my freedom. And now I am offering you yours. I have come to Brussels specifically for this task. I have rented these lodgings with the sole task of finding you and offering you another crossing. Believe me, Charles, believe and trust me. I will arrange another crossing for you. A crossing with someone who is young and strong. Then, together, we will return to the island. And somehow, we will find a way to repair the damage we have done.'” (P. 22)

It’s disorienting at first, since your mind is conditioned to go left to right, pages 1 to the end, and any deviation from this plays havoc with a Western person’s accustomed reading style.

But in no time flat, you are racing with anticipatory glee and gathering excitement, from page 157 to page 53 and then to page 1 and then 175, caught up in a story so epic and otherworldly, and yet grounded and authentic in its emotional evocativeness, that you start to forget that this is not how anyone usually reads a book.

It works, however, and works spectacularly well, and while this reviewer did not repeat the reading of the book in the more conventional manner, it appears (via anecdotal reports from other readers) that the narrative is just as enrapturing if you start at page 1 and plow on to the end as per usual.

That kind of cleverness might be annoying in its audacity save for the fact that Landragin makes it seem like an entirely natural thing, much like the story itself which is audaciously left of centre but which feels so real, so touching and achingly flawed that you cannot deny its ever-present affecting humanity.

The idea of two people pursuing each other over one highly-obsessed lifetime may not seem that unusual but over a great number of them? Ah, that is entirely unique but again despite its larger-than-life impetus, Landrigan zeroes in on the innate humanity of a story that might otherwise be lost in its fantastical setting.

Alex Landragin (image courtesy official Alex Landragin Twitter account)

It is, after all, a deeply human story despite its outstandingly almost otherworldly basis and subsequent expression.

There is nothing that makes us feel more human than sacrificing everything for love, but also finding then that these sacrifices begin to leach away the very humanity we seek to celebrate and hang onto.

Over the three stories, which range across time from a Pacific island in 1791 to the start the occupation of Paris in 1940, we come to appreciate how much people will give up to hold onto those things they them deem most valuable, but also the lengths they will go to to make up for a grievous mistake that brings with it a host of unintended and unforeseen consequences.

That is the richest part of Crossings – that it manages to explore both the most laudable and beautiful of motivations while exploring how these very things can be cruelled and lost in their very pursuit. (And create enemies so fiercely committed to their cause precisely because your misguided actions have cost them so much.)

It may seem strange to us that something as upliftingly wonderful as love could possibly lead to unsavoury or terrible outcomes but time and again in stories across all kinds of mediums, that is what happens in ways that suggest perhaps love is not so exemplary after all.

“Time and again I ask myself why I am still alive. I’m not proud of myself. I’ve been a thief. I’ve made a mess of things. I’ve tried to undo something that cannot be undone. I only seem to have made things worse. The world we came from is gone forever and nothing can bring it back. There can be no crossing without a return crossing. I think about that often. It torments me day and night. Perhaps the world doesn’t end all at once, but slowly, imperceptibly, as a chain of seemingly innocuous events measured across generations.” (P. 355)

But, of course, it is; it’s simply that in the hands of mortal, fallible humans, who wish for the best but often end up with nothing of the kind, or at least a compromised version of it, love’s vaulting promise does not always find its perfect articulation.

What the purity of the love shared by these two souls over many lifetimes, and its subsequent, fraught expression makes all too clear, helped by characters and circumstances so vivid, they all but leap off the page, is that the very best things in life are worth pursuing regardless of how they play out.

But Crossings also possesses a salutary warning about the great costs involved, its heart and mind-grippingly imaginative storyline, full of passion, hope, love and tenacious, rule-breaking loyalty, reminding us at every turn that in the pursuit of the very thing we treasure, we might make the kind of grievous mistakes that come perilously close to ruining the very object of the motivating adoration (you could argue that that comes to pass but again that depends on how you interpret the many consumingly beguiling twists and turns of this wholly remarkable novel.

Crossings is a fantastically rich and delicious adventure, one that stretches over centuries and lifetimes, its thrilling, gloriously-intoxicating narrative revealing in ways that excite and dismay, energise and enervate, eliciting hope and crushing disappointment that love is absolutely worth pursuing and tightly holding onto but that it may not always survive, at least not in the way you want it to, its journey down through the ages, where the beauty of the ideal, of the perfect truth, is often too often eclipsed, despite our best efforts, by the crushing reality of time’s cruel and compromising passing.

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