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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Reincarnation, Identity & Love

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The review of Jan Fortune’s Casilda Trilogy, which was first published January 24 2020.

Memory, always made of objects; of good and bad smells, of faded photos in a shabby scrapbook.

Trilogies are tricky. It is easy for the rival logics of stories to become unwieldy, to resist proximity. My mother Jan Fortune’s trilogy overcomes this by encoding repetitions and echoes into the heart of the overlapping narratives. This is signposted in the first book, This is the End of the Story. The emphasis is initially on time itself; the preface of each chapter introduces the month and year, from June-July 1977 to August 1978, each starting with the line, ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.’ The world’s unreason is then illustrated with news and weather forecasts, further historically situating the book. Part two takes up after a traumatic break that occurs at the end of part one, but with chronological jumps, epistolary journal entries in italics and faded prose suggesting the losses of time and memory. The first part is half-veiled in the make-believe reality the character Miriam constructs for herself and Cassie (Catherine). Refrains develop and give meaning alongside the plot; ‘a motif running through the novel’ is how an older Cassie, now Catherine, puts it. These repetitions change wording, but remain constant in content.

As the story goes on, we get a sense about why characters are forever returning to the same problems, and the same words. The focus of the novel is on the idea that a ‘story and the facts must match: the ancients didn’t start their tales any way they wanted’. Belief, the nature of the world and the importance of identity and narrative are explored via this device; the novel is an attempt at understanding, aporetic in tone, asking over and over ‘Who am I?’ The culmination, here, brings together the narrative ideas and archetypes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, reinterpreted through the character’s of Casilda of Toledo and Ben Haddaj from Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s children’s version of the myth, Casilda of the Rising Moon. This set of archetypes and myths set up the dilemmas for the two sequels, too, whereby we will see many characters explore a drama that possibly does not even begin with the deuteragonists here.

It would be wrong, however, to suppose from that description that This is the End of the Story (or any of the other books) is abstracted, focussing on archetypes and ignoring the world in which this particular iteration of these characters takes place. Catherine and Miriam grow up in Teeside, in the North-East of England around Middlesbrough, overshadowed by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and British Steel, ‘Cassie’s father had already lost his job by then and had taken another in the Middle East, like so many men made redundant from ICI and British Steel’. While Cassie is in a family of impoverished, but locally powerful Irish descendants, Miriam’s epilepsy, old parents and Jewish background singles her out for ostracisation and social prejudice.

Even the magical elements of the novel are grounded plausibly in these well-conceived people; it is Miriam who believes in Metempsychosis (reincarnation) and talks of the concept through different traditions; Gilgul Neshamot (Kabbalah) and Tanasukh (Islam). She practices psychography (automatic writing) to communicate with past selves and constructs an elaborate history of herself, in which she is various other people throughout time, forced to replay the same fundamental narrative in search of resolution. Her truest self is Ben Haddaj, a Muslim prince yearning for his Jewish roots, and she casts Cassie as the Moorish Muslim princess and later Christian saint Casilda. It falls, then, also plausibly, to Cassie to play along, losing herself in this story as she does in all the stories people construct around her, but also finding some freedom in her relationship with Miriam.

A Remedy for All Things picks up considerably later than the ending of the previous book, returning to the protagonist Catherine or ‘Cassie’, now reconstructing her life after a divorce and miscarriage. Miriam is at this point a tragic childhood memory, but will remain highly ‘present’ in the subsequent events, haunting this novel’s every page. ‘Perhaps I am not unravelling after all,’ Catherine at one instance muses, ‘but finding a path between a vision so keen it would overwhelm me and a fragmented dullness that would lull me into uncaring sleep.’ It is Miriam’s vision being alluded to. On the other hand, Catherine is in a new relationship to fellow writer Simon and is getting on with life, having been granted a research commission on 1930s Budapest poet Attila Józef. However, the magic of the first book insists on itself as Cassie ends up in the selfsame city dreaming of a woman named Selene Virág, imprisoned in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and — despite the irreconcilable time discrepancy, via ‘the bizarre illogic of dreams’ — also the mother of Józef’s impossible daughter, named Miriam.

Selene Virág’s story fulfils a similar set of archetypes as that performed by the semi-mythic Ben Haddaj and St. Casilda in the first novel, suggesting some possibility to the first Miriam’s self-conception and mystical ideas of a temporal bond established through personal and historical repetitions to a universal human struggle. The novel explores in more detail than the first ideas of human cruelty, ‘We are adept at humanity, aren’t we?’ But also of redemption and hope, still represented in the ambiguously tragic figure of Quixote, ‘Quixote always dies. It’s the same from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot to Madame Bovary.’

Memory, always made of objects: the oiled wood of the table, photos of Catherine, pictures of herself as a baby.

It is apt in a story rooted in ideas of reincarnation for repetitions and refrains to feature so prominently, as they do in all the books of the trilogy but uniquely in the finale, For Hope is Always Born. These repetitions pick up phrases and motifs from its predecessors, such that the characters feel smothered and weighted by history and, ultimately, the shadow of memory, grief. The repetitions often come one after the other, familiar but likewise strange in being so insistently present outside of their original context, ‘Belief was my gift. But this was the end of the story. I couldn’t go on.’ The most meticulous details of the lives of new characters are now firmly echoes of others; for example, how one character experiences migraines during which they ‘smell oranges and have optical hallucinations.’

For Miriam NcManus (who is also Casilda of Toledo from that myth) and Casilda Faertes (who is, deliberately and confusingly, Ben Haddaj), and quite unlike the protagonists of previous novels in the series, the challenge is less of circumstances being ‘right’ for them, and more of uprooting themselves from old cycles and habits that predate their existences and with which readers can now anticipate like a curse. At one point this new Miriam observes, ‘I seem constantly to lapse into other versions of ourselves[…] Are we insane?’ to which the new Casilda responds, ‘Only if we let each other go. I have a strong sense that this is our last chance.’ Whether or not this chance is successfully realised in their fraught journeys, their encounters with the traumas they have inherited, is what unfolds.

The book has a dreamlike quality that arises from the fact that Miriam and Casilda, a Spanish singer and a Jewish academic completing her Masters in contemporary Toledo, are playing out a drama set in motion possibly millennia before them, but at the least decades. Its a quality that also exists in the prequels, but here heightened and dominant: ‘Not like a paranoid feeling. More… that someone has seen you, really seen into you, just for a moment. That someone has taken you in and not found you wanting.’ But despite this weighting, this sense of being submerged in a fairy tale reality with an elusive but hard set of rules, we learn that at its core this novel is about ‘the notion that we can always reinvent ourselves’.

Similarly, explaining the fundamental task of alchemy (an important subject to all the books), we learn that through its undertaking ‘somehow we have to make harmony between all the elements we are made of.’ In essence, we do not get to determine the stories into which we are born, but we do reorder and mould those logics through human agency, ‘We will go through many dark clouds, but in the end… hope is always born at the same time as love.’ The ending deserves to be read firsthand, not because it represents an unexpected rupture, but because it celebrates the power of contingent choices. Behind the myth and the magic, this trilogy is about human beings, the troubled histories into which we are born, and what we can nonetheless do with those histories.

All three books can be found through Cinnamon Press.


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