Babayaga by Toby Barlow
You know how books come your way in coincidental ways? Amazon.com had told me I needed to read Babayaga, so I ordered it. I’ve always loved mythologies, I devoured them like candy when I was young, always looking for more. Babayagas are very old, and exist under many names in most cultures – elderly women who usually deal with concoctions, often medicinal, who live alone. In the west, they were often called witches, in the Slavic countries, babayaga, and it seems to me there is an old woman used to scare children in the Gulf, too. It seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Babayaga:
Baba Yaga is a witch (or one of a trio of sisters of the same name) in Slavic folklore, who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking elderly woman. She flies around in a mortar and wields a pestle. She dwells deep in the forest, in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs, with a fence decorated with human skulls. Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter or seek her out, and may play a maternal role. She has associations with forest wildlife. Sometimes she frightens a hero (e.g. by promising to eat him), but helps him if he is courageous. According to Vladimir Propp’s folktale morphology, Baba Yaga commonly appears as a donor, a villain, or something altogether ambiguous. In many fairy tales she kidnaps and eats children, usually after roasting them in her oven).
Andreas Johns identifies Baba Yaga as “one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in eastern European folklore,” and observes that she is “enigmatic” and often exhibits “striking ambiguity.” Johns summarizes her as “a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a cloud, moon, Death, Winter, snake, bird, pelican or earth goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image”.
Barlow’s BabaYaga includes all the backstory, inserted here and there, the Russian purges, revolts, revolutions, the wars, the mud, the snows, following the troops, and several different Babayaga, while focusing one one, the beautiful and mesmerizing Zoya, who lives in a magical post World War II Paris. She in unforgettable – unless, of course, she has woven a spell to muddy your mind and make you forget.
What I love about this book is that if it were true, you would still think it is fiction. If every single thing happened just as Barlow wrote it, you would never believe it. LOL! A wicked sour old babayaga turns a police detective investigating a murder into a flea; he finds it a novel experience and manages to make things come right even as a flea.
A young American man, Will, loving living in Paris, works for an ad agency and also for THE Agency in the heady days of post war Paris, where the rules are not yet in place and lines are fuzzy. Falls for a witch with a long history of loving and killing men, but that’s life. Is it better to love and lose than never to have loved? What if your love is a gorgeous babayaga who helps you live life with a vibrance and intensity you have never experienced?
There is a long, intricate, time-appropriate adventure/spy/industrial-scientific plot which I am not sure I entirely followed, with murders and shootouts and the Paris jazz and club scene, and it didn’t matter one whit whether I could follow the plot line or not, it was a wild ride of a novel and a lot of fun. 🙂
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