Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, usually happens after death, when the consciousness and memories of an individual are transported into the body of another. If you believe that sort of thing. It is also a handy, if well-trodden, literary device, used to influential effect in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
In Alex Landragin’s debut novel, Crossings, metempsychosis is practised by two living individuals from the fictitious island of Oaeetee. Alula and Koahu stare into the eyes of French sailors and thus inhabit their bodies and travel across the world, repeating the process once their hosts become decrepit.
Enjoyment of this ambitious but muddled book will be coloured by whether you consider metempsychosis a beguiling metaphysical notion or a convenience employed to link otherwise disparate stories – much of this book originally appeared as short fictions on Landragin’s website. An interest in Charles Baudelaire will also help.
Crossings is split into three sections. The first is a short story written by Baudelaire, in which he becomes aware of metempsychosis and admits to exchanging his soul with that of a young girl in order to cheat death and reunite with his mistress Jeanne Duval, who has hijacked the body of a wealthy duchess. Part two takes place in Paris, days before the arrival of the Nazis. The central MacGuffin in this compelling detective tale is Baudelaire’s short story, sought by a fugitive German Jew and an amusingly evil Coco Chanel. The final section is a seven-part autobiography of Alula’s various lives, leading to the present day. Throw in an alternative reading of the text available by following coded chapters, as well as the author himself appearing in fictionalised form as a Parisian bookbinder, and you have either a riotous literary melange or an unholy mess, depending on your mien.
Landragin’s gently persuasive tone just about sells the conceit, and novels of imagination must be welcomed in a relatively conservative literary landscape. Ideas, however, transmigrate more often than souls: Jeanne Duval was similarly possessed in Nalo Hopkinson’s 2003 novel The Salt Roads. That may not bother readers seeking another literary romp through time but, much like metempsychosis itself, Crossings leaves a nagging feeling that something here is not quite right – that there has been a cobbling together rather than a grand vision.
Picador, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Alex Landragin, Crossings". Subscribe here.