I love a good spy caper, particularly the kind of caper with a pinch of camp, a dash of fun, and a twinkle in the eye of a devastatingly charming rake. As such, I had high hopes for Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth, a novel set amid MI5’s cultivation of writers as propaganda machines in the 1970’s that I reviewed here. If you recall, I was rather disappointed by Sweet Tooth, particularly in McEwan’s lackluster and boring heroine, Serena, his first female protagonist since Atonement. As such, I approached Toby Barlow’s Babayaga with equal parts excitement and trepidation.
I needn’t have worried. Babayaga is everything I’d hoped it would be and more. Set during two weeks in Paris in 1959, it follows the exploits of Will, an American advertising agent from Detroit clumsily working for the CIA; Zoya, a beautiful and mysterious Russian constantly on the run and adept at manipulating rich men to ensure her survival; Oliver, a charming, insouciant American ex-pat, also apparently working for “The Agency”; Elga, a strange, bitter old woman about whom we are unsure whether she is evil or just going crazy; Vidot, an intelligent and perhaps overeager French police detective who loves nothing more than a particularly tangled puzzle and spends some time as a flea; and Andrei, an old priest who is not entirely sure he believes in God. Add into that a burly Russian working for the Americans, a jazz trio of African-American war veterans, a young girl whose best friend is a guard chicken, an exuberant and impractical advertising client, an incompetent chief of police, and a power-hungry doctor bent on weaponizing LSD, all set amid Cold War spycraft, and you have a wickedly delightful espionage romp. At the center of the story, though, is a beautiful meditation of love, loss, morality, and mortality shining through the insanity that churns around it. Oh, and did I mention that Zoya and Elga are witches?
It is that supernatural element, the insertion of the Babayaga, the fearsome old woman of Eastern European folklore who often lives in a house that runs on chicken legs, that elevates this novel from a simple, fun, zany spy story to something more. It’s not just a spy story, nor is it just a re-imagining of an old folktale. Instead it takes elements of both to create something, to my mind, completely new, sophisticated, and hugely fun with a surprising amount of heart. Maybe there are other spy novels out there that deal with Slavic folklore and the application of magic to highlight the intense highs and painful lows of life, but for me, this is a completely new approach to both genres. It feels fresh and exciting, and I was hooked from the first page.
My main tiff with the book is, once again, grammatical. The book is riddled with run-on sentences. Again, if Barlow was applying a stream-of-conscious style, perhaps it would have worked, but the thoughts are often unconnected. It gets to a point where it seems almost willful, as if he wants to flout the conventions of grammar in the reader’s face. If one is able to achieve a powerful or at least purposeful effect from breaking grammar rules, all the more power to you. However, breaking the rules just to break them smacks of laziness, and it distracts from an otherwise marvelous reading experience.
That quibble aside, Babayaga really is a fantastic work of new literature. Barlow masterfully handles the shifts in perspective that are used to tell the story, and each character is fully realized and distinct. The novel is a call to life: we spend so much of our lives tied to routines that we fall asleep and forget to enjoy the magic, both literal and figurative, that is human existence. Barlow’s story is a joyful tumble of language, inventiveness, emotion, and excitement to see what new adventure, good, bad, or unclear, life will bring. Barlow is not only a writer who is talented at but also takes intense delight in what he does for a living, allowing the reader to take delight in his work as well. Highly recommended for beach readers, literati, and everyone in between!