There’s an unclassifiable quality to Toby Barlow’s work—it’s not quite fantasy, not quite magical realism. With Babayaga, the Detroit-based writer returns to the strange mix of magic and raw human energy found in his debut, Sharp Teeth. Once you begin reading, you’ll stop trying to define this novel and simply term it an exhilarating ride.
Barlow’s narrative focuses on the lives of several very different but equally fascinating individuals in 1950s Paris. Will is a down-on-his-luck American advertising agent whose firm just happens to be a CIA front. Oliver is an American partier who came to Paris with dreams of starting a literary journal. Inspector Vidot is a detective who went to an old woman’s home to investigate a murder and somehow found himself turned into a flea. And then there’s Zoya, a beautiful young woman who attracts men with ease. But then, Zoya has been a beautiful woman for centuries—and that’s just the beginning of her talents.
Barlow has a gift for rendering the fantastic in a striking, matter-of-fact way. Even at its most fanciful (we are, after all, talking about a novel that features a man being turned into a flea), Babayaga is grounded by firm and careful prose. Every page blends the realms of the impossible and bizarre with the realms of history, culture and the human condition—and in that blending, the magic begins to feel very, very real.
But Barlow is not merely satisfied to believably inject magic into his narrative. As Babayaga meanders through the City of Light, it becomes deeper and even more fascinating— a meditation on love and secrecy and magic and what it means to be human that moves far beyond its intriguing premise. Babayaga is a book that, appropriately, casts a spell that’s hard to break.