Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Witch, please.

I'll admit, when I picked up Babayaga by Toby Barlow, I was expecting more about houses dancing on chicken legs and iron hags that what is actually contained within.

What I got instead was a screwy meditation on love and lust set in 1959 Paris. You know, France, not remote Russia, and really not Russian peasants.

We instead start off with Zoya, a young woman whose lover notices that she doesn't seem to age. She takes him for a walk around the Latin Quarter and throws him into a large iron spike hanging above a gate. Seems Zoya and her friend Elga, the more traditional crone are very slow to age witches who have existed for a very long time.

Then we have Will, an advertising executive who also quasi works for the CIA. (a side note towards the end points out that most ex-patriots in France at the time were in one way or another on the Agency dole.) Who ends up enchanted with Zoya after a chance meeting on a Paris train (that doesn't emerge in London rain). But not before Will gets wrapped up with Oliver, a fairly wealthy American ex-pat  who's somehow tied in with other espionage within Paris. We also can't forget Vidot, the police inspector, who spends most of the book as a flea, courtesy of Elga, who he confronts about the murder of Zoya's lover from the start of the book.

Honestly, of all of the characters, including an Orthodox priest who's brother is Elga's rat companion, and a chorus of dead witches who fill the pages with poetry every once in a while, Vidot is the one who gets the largest part of the hero's journey. Using ingenuity, he navigates Paris as a flea, finding his wife is having an affair with an Italian man with a wife of his own, escaping a flea circus, finding Elga, and finally winding up riding around with Will.

Zoya and Elga become much more interesting characters as we explore their back stories. Both were horribly abused, but found each other in the company of other witches. The problem with their journey prior to the contemporary setting is that it reads quite a bit like my English Seminar class of Gender, Language, and Literature syllabus. When Elga recruits a new witch to help her take out Zoya, we get an entire lecture on how men think they have all the power and build statues to their penises with faintly submissive feminine figures to worship around it. And how women actually are more subtle creatures who castrate men when they least expect it. It's really not subtle about this message either.

On the other hand, in the fourth act, as we finally start finding out what the heck is actually going on, and all the plot lines start to coalesce,  the book improves mightily. Not enough to make me ever want to re-read it or pick up any of his other books, but it was satisfying, if a lot silly. Just honestly, it seemed like the over arching themes were literal cuckolding and figurative castration, neither of which makes for something fun to read.