Babel, R.F. Kuang (2022)
Robin Swift is an orphan taken from his home in Canton by a mysterious English benefactor, who prepares him for a future at Oxford’s prestigious Babel Institute, where the world’s brightest linguistic minds pull apart the mysteries — and magic — of language, and the world and its people along with it. But his loyalties are called into question as he discovers just how complicit the college is in the colonial endeavour and the destruction of his homeland.
This was one of the buzziest and best-reviewed books of 2022, and I can understand why and agree with the general assessment. So let me make this clear before I offer some critiques: this is a brilliant book in many, many ways. It is well written, creates a unique and fascinating magical system, and is also thoroughly researched, lending it a historical particularity that is hard to come by. It is also a powerful story about the violence of European colonialism on the peoples of the world, including those of the European powers themselves. But as much as this last point is a strength of the book, it also is one of my problems with it. (Even as I agree with the premise.) The problem from my perspective is this: The story itself would have been a strong statement of this anti-colonial message, yet the book pauses, both in the text and in copious footnotes, for long discussions of colonialism that often veer into diatribe and rants. As much as I agreed with the sentiment, these felt unnecessary and took me out of the flow of the story. (At one point I had to pause to ask it, “I’m with you; I agree with you: Why are you yelling at me!”) My point here is just that I wish the author had trusted her readers enough to understand the message, because it’s an important one, and how she handled this material took away from the strength of the argument for me, rather than contributing to it. Now it has to be said that this was a choice by the author. She did what she wanted to do, and it is certainly not my job to ‘tone police’ her. There absolutely must be a place for works of literature like this, that are angry refusals to accept the unacceptable in the world. But there’s also a place for me as a reader to respond by saying that I wish she’d taken a slightly different tack.
When I was about a third the way through, I was expected to prepare a very different review, about how Babel beautifully highlighted the moral complexity of the nineteenth century, and how even well-meaning Europeans ended up being complicit with the colonizing project. But — to my mind unfortunately — the direction the story took removed that ambiguity and instead drew stark lines of good and evil. This is a book that rejects the possibility of middle ground when it comes to world affairs. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world needs goads after all. But, I would have found the book I thought it was going to be (which would have been no less strong in its message) more interesting, and ultimately, more helpful.
All of this critique is not really a criticism. This is a powerful book and I encourage everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see to read it. It’s simply that I’m leaving it a bit disappointed because this could easily have been an all-time favorite for me had it not been for what seem from my perspective to be some unforced errors.
Read this if you’re interested in:
- 19th Century History
- Historical Linguistics
My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 8, Intrigue 9, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 8, Enjoyment 8, Lasting Impact 9: TOTAL 92
Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003), 76: In a post-apocalyptic world, a solitary human who lives alongside an innocent, quasi-human species known as Crakers reflects on everything that transpired to get to that point. I have very mixed feelings about this. Margaret Atwood is an unbelievably gifted writer, with a wonderful imagination. But this world she created — both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ — is without question the most misanthropic, inhumane, and hopeless place I’ve ever encountered in any media. Unfortunately, this means that it is devoid of anything that makes the human experience interesting. There is a lot to appreciate here, but all of that has been soaked through with a rather putrid brine. (Speculative Fiction, Dystopian Fiction, CanLit)
Ghosts (The New York Trilogy 2), Paul Auster (1986), 88: A private investigator’s life is upturned when he is asked to surveil a rather ordinary Brooklyn man. The novellas of the New York Trilogy are so tightly connected that they are are now generally sold as a single omnibus. This one covers the same themes of identity and the self as City of Glass, but in a more succinct way. To me, Ghosts was more successful, though City of Glass seems to be more highly regarded by critics. I really enjoyed this and I appreciated the simpler storytelling that allowed it to avoid the self-indulgence that annoyed me about the first. (Mystery, Detection, Identity, Humanity)
Ziggy, Stardust & Me, James Brandon (2019), 91: It’s 1973 and being gay is still classified as a disease in the United States. For sixteen-year-old Jonathan, this means being subjected to electroshock aversion therapy. But when a self-confident Indigenous boy arrives in town straight from the occupation of Wounded Knee, Jonathan sees new possibilities for his life. This is a wonderful but hard read. Trigger warnings for homophobia, reparative therapy, bullying, anti-Indigenous racism, substance abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. (Young Adult, LGBTQ2S+, 1970s, Indigeneity, Romance)
The Giver (The Giver Quartet 1), Lois Lowry (1993), 96: Twelve-year-old Jonas takes on his appointed role and finds out some shocking truths that shake his faith in the perfect world in which he was raised. This is a chilling classic of dystopian children’s fiction — and deservedly so. Lowry creates a great and believable world and slowly peels back the layers until all that remains is the disturbing truth underneath it all. A great read. (Middle Grade, Dystopian, Fantasy, Coming of Age)
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh (1964), 68: Eleven-year-old Harriet goes around her wealthy New York City neighbourhood taking notes on everything and everyone she sees. But things go sideways for her when her notebook falls into the wrong hands. I never read this as a child and after reading it, I found myself surprised it has the big reputation that it does. There’s a lot to like, particularly in the relationship between Harriet and her nurse and the vivid portrayal of the neighbourhood. But, nothing happens. The ‘inciting incident’ doesn’t come until about the two thirds mark of the book and had very little payoff. There’s a lot of charm here, but not enough substance for the style. (Middle Grade, Coming of Age, Honesty, Kindness)
Love and Other Words, Christina Lauren (2018), 84: Macy and Elliott were teenage soul mates, but when they were right on the cusp of being able to be together, out and about and on their own, one disastrous New Years Eve drove them apart. Now, eleven years later, they bump into each other in a cafe and have to face the ghosts of the past and the feelings that never went away. This is a very good contemporary romance, as one would expect from Christina Lauren. There’s a lot ‘romance reasons’ here that came close to bursting suspension of disbelief for me, but overall, it’s heartfelt book that’s well worth a few hours of one’s time. (Romance, Grief and Loss, Friends-to-Lovers(-to-Enemies-to-Lovers))
The Magic Fish, Trung Le Nguyen (2020), 75: An Vietnamese American boy and his immigrant mother try to find a common language and understanding through reading fairy tales together. I thought this had a wonderful premise and a powerful message, but didn’t love the execution. I was mostly wanting to learn more about Tiến and his mom and found the constant and lengthy digressions into the fairy tales frustrating and largely irrelevant. (Graphic Novels, Vietnamese American stories, Immigrant stories, LGBTQ2S+, Fairy Tales, Family)
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