Baba yaga by Toby Barlow
Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog appears in my Desert Island Library (above). His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it. When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Baba yaga.
The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore was a supernatural and ferocious woman, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.
The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older. Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.
Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.
Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.
As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea. Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.
Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…
‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’
Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!
We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.
Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.
Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.
Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.
One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.
Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.
This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)
PS. The source of the quote at the top of the post? It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.
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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback