For many, crossing a border barely registers as an experience; for others, it can be a matter of life and death. Jonah falls into the latter category. A young man from Malawi who is driven from his homeland by a savage famine, Jonah comes to England on the promise of a better life. But before he has set foot on British soil, the rest of his party have lost their deadly gamble and he is left alone to finish his journey.

For many, one’s memories are the bedrock of identity; for others, they are a troubling puzzle to be solved. Edie falls into the latter category. Frustrated by all that lies beyond her grasp, she is struggling to hide her troubles from the ‘meddling’ WI women in town but struggling just as much to cope alone.

Crossing Over by Ann Morgan book coverCrossing Over (2019) is the story of these two very different lives intersecting. Arriving in England alone, Jonah takes refuge in an empty barn – Edie's empty barn – but little does he know, this is not the first time the barn has been used to harbour someone avoiding the authorities. When Jonah is eventually discovered by Edie and pulled into her life as an unofficial carer, it becomes clear that during the second world war a young deserter had also hidden out in the barn. Back then, a pubescent Edie had fallen into a lopsided romance with the soldier; now, her new stowaway sparks memories long forgotten. Can Jonah help Edie navigate her deepening dementia, and can he get himself to London and the life he was promised in England among these strange Mzungu people?

From the story’s blurb, it is fairly clear how the story will unfold – we have two lives that will be brought together, and an unusual but mutually beneficial connection will be formed. However, with the volume of media stories about (failed) crossings of the English channel by desperate asylum seekers, it is no bad thing to have a story that begins to humanise the experience of the desperate folks who make such a perilous journey. Equally, those who suffer with dementia often do so out of sight.

The parallels between Jonah’s and Edie’s current predicament are well drawn out without being heavy handed. Both have felt the links to their past ruptured almost to the point of failure. Jonah struggles to contact his friends and family back home in Malawi and when he does, he finds that it is not just his new geography that separates him from his previous life. Conversely, Edie is rooted in the same spot she has spent her past 70+ years, but her mind allows her only confused glimpses of her past. Whether spatial or temporal, the distance from the main characters’ pasts aches throughout their shared narrative.

With two central characters experiencing such distinctive crises, it is a challenge for an author who won’t have first-hand experience of either circumstance to write their characters sensitively. Ann Morgan does this. For those who aren’t familiar with Morgan, a few years back she set herself the unenviable task of reading a book from every country on Earth (details of which can be found on her blog: Couple this with a good deal of travel, and an author is about as prepared as they can be to approach characters whose experience is so vastly different from their own.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Jonah is travelling from Malawi (a place Morgan has spent some time) and is fascinated by many British customs. It is amusing and tender to find him perplexed by so many of these and one can’t help but smile when he mishears Edie’s name and refers to her as ET for most of the story (the significance of ET as an allusion should be clear). But while one smiles at instances like this, Morgan does hit a few discordant notes. These tend to come not in the dialogue of her characters but when she makes use of free indirect discourse. Here we find prose that squeezes odd words (like gelatinous, for example) or colloquial phrases into Jonah’s voice. For a character that is often baffled by the nuances of the English language, this feels awkward. However, Crossing Over is only available as an audiobook currently, which makes it a little harder to determine what comes from the page and what comes from the actor’s interpretation in terms of whose pattern of speech the narration is mimicking.

By contrast, Edie is roundly a success: her defiance, her jumping self-identity that frequently skips back to her as a young woman, her swings of mood, are all handled well. When she (internally) ferociously chastises her friends of many decades for small mistakes, it is amusing and evidence of both her current and previous selves. As one learns more about Edie and her past romance with the stowaway soldier, the ticks of her personality become clearer and more understandable. She is vulnerable and spiky – a combination that feels apt for her situation.

Crossing Over has the feel of a pleasantly predictable dive into two worlds, neither of which are comfortable. As a reader, one has very little fear about where things are going but instead invests in empathising with the main characters. For me, this felt a little safe – the type of book I could comfortably recommend to anyone’s mum without fearing they would be confused or disturbed by it – and I wanted to be challenged more. This is all me in terms of expectations, however. If this was a nice, nine o’clock drama on the BBC (as it could easily be), the Radio Times would give it two thumbs up, but I would skip it.

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