Edie is finding the world around her increasingly difficult to comprehend. Words are no longer at her beck and call, old friends won’t mind their own business and workmen have appeared in the neighbouring fields, preparing to obliterate the landscape she has known all her life. Rattling around in an old farmhouse on the cliffs, she’s beginning to run out of excuses to stop do-gooders from interfering when one day she finds an uninvited guest in the barn and is thrown back into the past.
Jonah has finally made it to England where everything, he’s been told, will be better. But the journey was fraught with danger and many of his fellow travellers didn’t make it. Sights set firmly on London, but unsure which way to turn, he is unprepared for what happens when he breaks into Edie’s barn.
Haunted by the prospect of being locked away and unable to trust anyone else, the elderly woman stubbornly battling dementia and the traumatised illegal immigrant find solace in an unlikely companionship that helps them make sense of their worlds even as they struggle to understand each other. Crossing Over is a delicately spun tale that celebrates compassion and considers the transcendent language of humanity.
As I started to read Crossing Over I was knocked backwards by how incredibly innovative the narration was, but also how incredibly brave. Edie’s inner world is fractured and of course we don’t know why or what’s going on at first. The author trusts her reader to carry on, to make sense of what’s happening and never underestimates us. We’re plunged headlong into Edie’s world and her desperate attempts to communicate her place in it. The timeless farmhouse she seems to have known all her life, the villagers and her routine of church or WI events all seem to be constants. What’s changing is Edie, as she drops backwards through time, forgets commitments and even visitors or why they are there. As we get to know her, the narrative works on two levels. We are with Edie in whatever time and circumstance her mind places her, but also with Edie as she becomes painfully aware that there’s a way she should be behaving, but even when she’s sure of the proper behaviour it’s often in the wrong context. She’s just on the edge of awareness most of the time, just about recognising from people’s response or facial expressions that she’s not quite hit the mark. Her brusqueness and artificial bonhomie only faintly cover the confusion and fear underneath. The chaos is brilliantly written, in jagged prose that contrasts the inner truth of how much Edie is struggling and the world’s response as it becomes more and more obvious that all is not okay. As Jonah comes into the narrative, also operating at fight or flight level, things become even more confused and complicated. Edie thinks he’s there to spy on her and he’s baffled by the way she communicates, her poor memory and her lapses into the past. Can they come to an understanding of each other and somehow help each other move forward?
This could have been one of those really sentimental novels, designed to be uplifting, but the author avoids that with these complex characters. Not everything about them is sympathetic, they are real and flawed. Edie isn’t a cosy little granny and through her time lapses we start to realise she has experienced traumatic events in her younger years. She has also made bad choices in life. There’s a deeply ingrained sense that there’s one correct way to be and her standards are slipping. Some of the muddled events are a strange mix of humorous and heartbreaking. The cake sale springs to mind, where she has lapsed back to being younger and wears an outfit that’s far too colourful and revealing for an elderly lady with varicose veins to cover. She then offers to keep track of the money and ends up making mistakes, as well as eating a whole batch of highly prized cakes. These types of escapades made me giggle and I loved the way she keeps her head high and won’t bow to their concerns or questions. Yet the fear and anxiety running underneath this forceful front made me feel for her, perhaps because I have a life limiting and degenerative illness I could understand her desperation to stay independent and deny what’s happening to her. Fear makes her angry and lash out, imagining the embarrassment of the vicar and other do-gooders if she let slip some of the secrets she holds about them. I could sense that the past held the clues to Edie’s character and I was waiting for something quite dark to be revealed.
Jonah also holds some dark secrets and memories deep inside, things he has experienced on the journey and from his life before. I read that the author had been very careful writing his character, with a great awareness of the sensitivities involved in writing a black character without that lived experience. She has used sensitivity readers and has revised the novel several times. Yet Jonah isn’t a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out, he has real depth. No one can go through what Jonah has and remain untouched and all credit to the author for not following an easier, and potentially more lucrative, redemption narrative. As a result this might not be to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed delving into two such complex and damaged characters and the disjointed way their stories are told. Have patience with it, get used to the complicated and unreliable narration and you will be rewarded with a rich and thoughtful read about people society increasingly sees as problems to solve, rather than human beings.
Thank you to Renard Press for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.