It starts with a witch, Zoya, and her paramour prey.
Another plotline follows Will and the misunderstanding that ensues when he confirms that he works for "the agency."
These stories are joined by love, of course, and the police investigation into the gruesome end of Zoya's victim (even while the chief investigator is turned into a flea) threads them together.
Babayaga, by Toby Barlow, is a fairly impossible sounding novel. Part fairytale, part police procedural, part madcap comedy, part love story. And all Paris.
It should be noted that George Plimpton is the inspiration for one of the characters central to Will's comedy of errors. George Plimpton, who cofounded The Paris Review 1n 1953 Paris, was also known as an agent of influence for the CIA, who funded the Review through the Aga Khan, as it was used as a cover for agency activities. Really. I'm not making this stuff up. And neither is Toby Barlow. If I hadn't known better, I might've thought this plot was stretched a little too far.
The witchy part of the novel draws on Slavic folklore for inspiration, and we follow Zoya and her elder through parts of Russia and Poland. But witches are not born; they are created. By men, one might say. There's a feminist bent to their power.
When doubts arose in Zoya's heart, and over the years they intermittently did, Elga seemed to have a knack for showing up by her side, consoling Zoya with blunt woodland wisdom, explaining how it was all righteous, even merciful. "It is only fair and only just," Elga would say. "Men have dragged us by our hair through the ages, and whether they give us crumbs or bright, shiny rocks, they truly give us nothing at all. If you have not opened your legs for them so that they could crawl out as babies or crawl in as men, then they will leave you to starve like a dog on the street. So now we are done playing the way they want us to play. Now we are moving to music they cannot hear, to a rhythm they cannot understand. They call it madness and we call it truth and find me the magistrate you can trust to judge between the two? Bah. So we dance on, we dance on."
Though they are clearly criminals, it's hard not to feel sorry for them in their circumstances — Zoya for being a (relatively) young and naïve romantic, and Elga simply crazy from age and the horrors she's lived. Zoya's motivation is not always clear, but we love her as much as Will does, and all is forgiven.
There are several (twelve) witches' songs that interrupt the text. This element didn't work for me at all. They suggest neither rhythm nor tune, too cryptic and disordered to work as ballads, too specific and banal in their lyrics to feel like laments, nothing incantatory or enchanting about them. Clearly they are songs sung by witches, but they don't settle on a perspective — witch or human, inner or all-seeing. They neither bring insight nor cause intrigue. They have no charm. (These songs have quashed any temptation I might've had to check out Barlow's werewolf novel, Sharp Teeth, written in free verse.)
Witch songs aside, it's a fun book, a quick read, that tugged at my heart strings to rip my romantic streak a little wider.
A sentence I love: "There, finally, she spotted the police car, parked like a turtle sleeping in the sun, waiting to be cracked open for its meat."
Los Angeles Times:
"The blend of James Bond, folk tale, Gogol's humor and surrealism with a corny French detective and a young man's love story all improbably works."
"Toby Barlow's Babayaga is a novel that asks not to be taken too seriously. This is its most fundamental mistake."