American writers have always been drawn to Paris as the romantic ideal, both in terms of romance and creativity. Toby Barlow’s Babayaga explores both of these themes, as his wonderfully inventive story takes in Russian witches, American spies, heartsick ad-men and a French detective who is turned into a flea.
Our principal characters are Will, a young advertising executive from Detroit who is preparing to leave Paris, and Zoya, a beautiful Russian witch who has been preying on the men of the city for decades. When Zoya gets on the wrong side of her hot-tempered elder Elga and Will becomes embroiled in a CIA conspiracy, their paths cross and become entangled in a web of spells, spies and seduction.
If this all sounds like a bit of a romp, well, it is a bit. Barlow puts in a lot of time fleshing out the murky past of his baba yagas and there’s plenty of leisurely contemplation of Paris’ place in the modern world, the deterioration of Detroit and that small subject of the relationship between men and women. At times Babayaga is a little too leisurely, as if the author is luxuriating in the world he’s created for too long.
However, it’s great fun. Will and Zoya’s stories are combined with those of the splenetic Elga, dandy hustler Oliver and the aforementioned Inspector Vidot who goes through a Kafka-esque transformation. The plot itself is surprisingly slight; but Babayaga is about the enjoyment of the journey. The little details that litter the narrative, from Elga’s elborate witchcraft to the life of a couple running a flea circus, are so endearing that it’s hard to blame the author too much for enjoying himself.
Babayaga is a funny, charming and well-constructed piece of work that blends its elements beautifully for a bewitching piece of work.