Toby Barlow - Babayaga (4 stars)

Toby Barlow - Babayaga

Deliriously fun ride taking in fantastical exploits


In which Toby Barlow unleashes a juggernaut of a narrative and, amazingly, keeps it in complete control for 400 hugely entertaining pages. The story comprises three intertwining sets of characters in post-war Paris, and involves CIA espionage, a pair of centuries-old witches, a police detective who gets turned into a flea, and some very Inception-y shared dreaming. The nominal central character is Will, an American ad-man abroad, who stumbles unwittingly into this adventure and, shortly after, true love (with Zoya, one of the witches). Barlow strings the reader along without even a brief explanation as to why anything is happening, balancing outlandish fantasy with wittily-captured period reality, and it makes for a deliriously fun ride.

Barlow’s bold characterisation and freewheeling plotting bring to mind the equally entertaining worlds of Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, but Babayaga arguably has a depth that eluded those two. The core of Barlow’s story is emotional rather than intellectual, and in among the novel’s many fantastical exploits he buries several affecting ruminations on the near-magical capacities of love.

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