It won’t surprise you in the least to learn that Toby Barlow has written a novel of transformations.
In his 2008 book, Sharp Teeth Barlow pulled off what sounds like a tremendously hard sell; he wrote a werewolf novel made up entirely of poetic verse. This actually worked in a delicious way, giving readers a first novel at once offbeat and compelling, ably creating ridiculously beautiful moments out of seemingly ridiculous ideas.
Babyaga, offers a new entry into the growing, and important, genre of urban fantasy. Like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville and Catherynne M. Valente, he takes a historic urban space and transforms it into a place to ask questions about misogyny, the decline of great historical moments, and our relationship to historic places, that become a kind of commodity once their golden age has passed and all that’s left to do is talk about how amazing it would have been to live in that moment.
Oh, and there are witches.
Set in Paris in 1959, the action of the novel takes place in only a few days time. Will, a rather bland young American who lives as an ex-pat working for a Paris ad agency, finds himself bizarrely entangled with a literary entrepreneur and a group of spies, learning along the way that his ad agency apparently functions as a front for the CIA. Will’s adventures with both literary magazines and the cold war intertwines with the story of Elga and Zoya, two witches who have been partnered together for centuries but who now find themselves turned from grudging comrades into bitter enemies.
Readers who have become used to the conventions of contemporary horror will find in Babayaga a pleasant surprise. It’s seemingly become de rigueur to abandon older, more threatening, images of the monster and make them more attractive and sympathetic. In this moment of vampires with souls and love lives (even zombies have both now), Barlow refreshingly brings us some old-fashioned witches who get up to undeniably malicious behavior.
It must be noted that Barlow gives us the old fashioned monster out to do us ill, while still managing to turn magical realism toward a formal experiment with realism. Elga and Zoya, whose partnership gone wrong helps to drive one of the novel’s better subplots, are not evil in any simple sense. They are historical creations, the results of brutalization and abuse that are shown as more than simply moments in their own biographies. Their personal horrors become representations of the carnage wrought across the face of Europe for centuries by an unstoppable tide of nations, armies and ideas.
Here the idea of transformation takes its darkest turn. They are victims who became victimizers and we still find them to be complex and even sympathetic characters.
The characters, really much more than a plot that meanders too much to make us care about it, provide the novel’s most engrossing elements. Rather minor characters enthrall us, including a priest who finds himself an unlikely aide-de-camp for the witches coven or Oliver, a character whose personality (and extracurricular activities) provides something of a parody of the emergence of The Paris Review.
Then we have Vidot, the detective who believes himself a new incarnation of Dupin or Holmes and whose absurd trials in the novel are hard to describe without making the reader assume that there’s no way that his plotline could work. Here goes, anyway: rather early in the novel the elder witch, Elga, transforms Vidot into a flea. Although seemingly being the moment that Vidot’s character disappears from view, it’s a metamorphosis worthy of Kafka. Vidot now must deal with the vicissitudes of flea life in ’50s-era Paris. The character not only deals with the dangers inherent in catching rides on a dog’s back or a man’s scalp, but also faces some shattering truths about his wife’s infidelity that his flea-form enables him to discover in a scene that’s at once sad, hilarious, and wildly entertaining.
Oddly, Will himself remains rather colorless throughout the novel. Barlow gives him a bit of interesting shading with occasional references to his background in Detroit, but otherwise he can’t really compete with the wonderfully realized characters that surround him. He comes across as a kind of stereotypical American abroad who had planned to learn as much as he could about French culture, but found himself mostly eating a lot of good food and trying to sleep with a lot of beautiful women.
It’s also possible that Barlow really wants us to see his titular main characters as rather uninteresting, though this also presents a few problems in the novel. Zoya, a powerful sorceress who has been seducing all manner of men with Circe-like prowess for centuries, finds herself falling for Will. She’s surprised at this and, frankly, so are we.
Minor plotting and character issues aside, Barlow has created a world of urban fantasy you’ll find yourself totally immersed in. He’s fashioned a novel where the characters become the embodiment of a ravaged history, their trajectories interlinking with some of the most shattering changes of the 20th century that force equally powerful changes on them.
Most poignantly, the novel concludes by bringing the sometimes scattered plot skeins together into a meditation on the meaning of a changing Paris, an age being swept away as 1959 becomes the ’60s and post war jazz will soon be replaced by a revolution in the streets. Barlow’s Baedeker’s guide to the witchcraft of the history of Paris is simply not to be missed.