'Babayaga' works magic to make 'impossible possible'
By Carolyn Kellogg
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Before “Babayaga,” I thought Disney had captured all the world's folk tales and remade them as child-friendly blockbusters. But author Toby Barlow got to Baba Yaga — fearsome witches plucked from old Russian legend — first, and he brings them to life in 1950s Paris.
At the center of the novel is Will, a young American ad man who is not a witch. He's enjoying the pleasures of the city, although he'll probably soon be heading home to Detroit. He's a likable, drifting 20-something, the kind of guy who might meet a fellow expat in a bar and tag along for an evening of drinking and wooing girls.
Enter Zoya, whom Will pursues avidly — thanks in part to her spells, woven because she likes him, too. Dark-haired, blue-eyed and big-bosomed, Zoya is with an older lover in the book's first pages, post-coital, worried that he's finally noticed she hasn't aged in decades. She looks sweet, but she's innately dangerous: She swiftly dispenses with the old man by impaling his head on a spike.
She learned everything she knows from Elga, an ancient, evil crone. With an apartment crammed with potions, a black rat for a familiar and a decidedly nasty disposition, Elga is a witch in the classic mode. Just to keep things interesting, she's got a modern touch or two: For a jolt of energy, she snorts dried, powdered snake.
When Zoya's indiscreetly disposed lover leads a police detective named Vidot to Elga's door, the elder witch flies into a fury and turns him into a flea. Yes, a flea.
As with any good farce, the plot isn't really the point, but it can best be described as a tangle of pursuits. Elga seeks revenge on Zoya, the police try to find Vidot, Vidot wants to be human again, and enchanted Will and Zoya chase each other. Meanwhile, Will's expat friend Oliver (the one he went drinking with) runs a literary journal by day and is a CIA operative by night; he soon sweeps Will up in his Cold War shenanigans.
All of this could be a hot mess, but Barlow is adept at combining unexpected genres: His first novel, “Sharp Teeth,” about werewolves in Los Angeles, was told entirely in verse. On his second time out as a novelist, Barlow easily keeps all the balls in the air (while balancing on stilts and whistling a happy tune). 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.
The voice of this book is straightforward, light and warm. Stuck on a stuffy subway, Will “distracted himself by recalling the night he met Zoya on the metro. He remembered her little smudge of a black eye, how surprising it had been when she spoke to him and how he'd thought about asking her out for a drink but hadn't because he'd been too tired. He suspected that would be the scene he took home with him as his mental postcard of Paris, a vision of talking with a pretty girl alone at night on an empty train.” And where Will is full of feeling, the police detective Vidot can't help be funny: He's upstanding, valiant, proud, slightly pretentious — while being a flea.
Barlow goes all-in on each story line: Poor Vidot hitches his way across the city on the bellies of dogs, an adventure relayed with great physical detail. Will and Oliver try to deliver the CIA goods amid a baffling scrim of double crosses that tap dances among a mysterious pharmacy, a jazz trio, a pair of Russian assassins and a blond American WASP. Will and Zoya connect, explicitly; the book isn't coy about sex. The witches' history unfolds richly, too.
To propel things along, the ghosts of three witches, old colleagues of Elga and Zoya's, comment on the events like a Greek chorus. In verse, of course.
Writing these free-form poems, some of which go on for pages, is something an author undertakes only if it's fun. A real joy in the storytelling process comes through as well in the whimsical detours and characterizations.
As literary nerds will recognize, Oliver's ridiculous dual life — a government agent who runs a literary journal — is a riff on the Paris Review. One co-founder, Peter Mattheissen, was actually in the CIA. Another, the writer George Plimpton, served as the model for the charismatic spy with an endless supply of anecdotes.
When Barlow began writing fiction, he has said, he was “blessed by Plimpton's spirit of making the impossible possible.” This book continues in that tradition: It's an absurd hybrid that winds up as a bewitching caper novel.
Carolyn Kellogg is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Father-son funeral directors lead community
- Clairton Meals on Wheels puts new van in immediate service
- Keisel might be at end of Steelers career
- Penguins’ leads evaporate in loss to Sharks
- Natural gas industry buoyed by advancing technology
- Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve brings ‘Glory’ to Byham
- Fish frying for Lent begins in Armstrong
- Judge to Cook Township drug suspect: Get new friends
- Fiennes a force in ‘Invisible Woman’
- Fashion briefs: ‘Crochet’ book offers step-by-step guides
- The iconic wrap dress marks 40 years of classic style