Friday 28 February 2014

Book Review | Babayaga by Toby Barlow

From the author of Sharp Teeth comes a novel of postwar Paris, of star-crossed love and Cold War espionage, of bloodthirsty witches and a police inspector turned into a flea... and that's just for starters! 

Toby Barlow's marvellous Babayaga may begin as little more than a love-letter to the City of Light, but it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.


Once upon a time, I went to Paris, France. I confess I expected it to be something special—a romantic getaway I'd remember forever—but to my dismay, what I found was a pretty city, and while I won't go so far as to say cities are all basically the same these days, they are (in my European experience at least) interchangeable in various ways.

In Babayaga, Toby Barlow peels away the years to reveal a markedly more appealing period, when people and places, ideas and indeed dreams, developed independently:
This city, it's been the eye of the hurricane for centuries, a firestorm of ideals, art, and philosophy, a place where fierce arguments became actual revolutions, which then exploded into bloody wars. Think about all that happened here, Pascal, Descartes, Voltaire, Napoleon, the barricades of the commune. This was it, the glistening pearl resting at the center of a grand transcendent battle for mankind's soul. [...] But now it's all over. (p.378)
Over, or almost—like Will van Wyck's sojourn in postwar Paris, where he's found some success at an advertising agency with ties to the intelligence sector. Alas, his client base has practically collapsed: his CIA liaison has better things to do, to be sure, and once the clown Guizot goes, Will will have nothing left to keep him here. He hardly relishes the prospect of returning home to the devastation of Detroit; in fact "he had thoroughly enjoyed, savoured and celebrated every single day he had spent in this city," (p.16-17) but when the time comes, what's to be done?

Why, become entangled in a complex Cold War plot involving a fellow ex-pat! Oliver is the editor of a struggling literary journal modelled on The Paris Review who goes above and beyond as a talkative operative caught up in altogether too many madcap shenanigans.

In the midst of these marvellous mishaps, our everyman falls for a beautiful young woman on the run from the crazy old lady she came to the country with. Elga is hell bent on destroying Zoya... and she could do it, too. After all, the two women are witches—if not of the sort we've become familiar with in our fantastic fiction...

They controlled what others called coincidence, not only finding people but drawing them in as well. They lured prey to their door when they were hungry, pushed rivals together when they needed blood, and drove lovers into fevered embrace when they desired entertainment. Once you crossed their path, any conceit of free will became a fanciful notion. (p.130)
So is Will simply the latest in a long line of unwitting victims? Or does Zoya have real feelings for him?

She does—or so the story goes. I for one wasn't quite convinced by Barlow's development of the relationship between the pair. Why this unremarkable man would give rise to "those gilded and hopeful fairy-tale notions that Elga had always scolded [Zoya] for harbouring" (p.90) is a question the author never answered to my satisfaction; a particularly problematic lack given how large a part this contrived romance plays in the tale.

That said, I adored most everything else about this book. Notwithstanding Will, the characters themselves are undeniably vibrant: Oliver is an adorable bloviator, Zoya a wickedly conflicted witch, whilst Elga's appalling origins give pathos to her evils, even.

But the life and soul of this obscenely appealing party proves to be Detective Inspector Vidot: a perpetually pleasant gentleman investigating the "bizarre and inexplicable events" (p.102) with which Babayaga begins. Certain evidence leads said to Elga, who simply turns the interfering policeman into a flea. Winningly, Vidot takes this strange twist of fate quite in his stride:
He understood that some other souls might be panicked or overwhelmed with grief at the thought of being trapped in a small insect's body, but, he thought, these were generally the same people who felt cursed when there were only plain croissants at the market, or complained when the lunch waiter was slow. Whereas he believe life, any life, was a curious adventure, and it you merely kept your wits about you and stayed alert and in motion, you could find your way to a satisfactory conclusion. (pp.150-151)
As Babayaga does, thanks to a positively action-packed last act.

As a matter of fact, this is a novel that's always moving forward. Bolstered by an expansive cast of enrapturing characters, the plot—exquisitely ridiculous as a lot of it is—rarely slows down for more than a moment, and like Will, I could talk about Babayaga's immersive setting till the cows come home. "From the thyme- and sage-scented smells of the coq au vin that spilled out of so many kitchens to the buzzing sounds of the Vespa scooters whizzing by to the chiming of the bold church bells through the days and nights," (p.157) you can smell and taste and touch these minor marvels in Toby Barlow's riotous romp of a novel. This is the city I wished to visit.

Rendered as it is with wit and whimsy and wisdom, Babayaga is a love letter to classic Paris: a wild ride through the sounds and sights of the City of Light which we encounter, crucially, in the company of some damned charming characters. Not to be missed by fans of fun.


by Toby Barlow

UK Publication: February 2014, Atlantic
US Publication: September 2013, FSG

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