Friday, August 7, 2020

WITMonth Day 7 | Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scega

I'll admit, I was somewhat surprised and disappointed by Beyond Babylon. Igiaba Scego's book (tr. from Italian by Aaron Robertson) caught me off guard from its first pages, which are filled with the sort of crude language that struck me as at odds with the quiet cover photo. And that was fine, for a start; I quickly recognized that the book had its own rhythm going and I was happier for it. The problems began once I realized how the book was progressing, or rather how it wasn't. Publisher-created expectations strike yet again.

I'm learning that I simply need to stop reading book summaries. Beyond Babylon markets itself as a reunion between half-sisters, but this is... emphatically not what the book is about. Narrated by wildly different voices - the aforementioned half-sisters (whose connection we discover fairly late in the book, and it is... honestly pretty subtle), their respective mothers, and their shared father - it's also a book that doesn't feel the need to stick to one narrative style too strictly. This is Beyond Babylon's greatest strength, with the book rarely feeling like any one dull progression. The storytelling is muddled and messy in the best possible way, with each narrator sharing a story across time and space and emotions and internal confusion. The daughters both have very present narrations, sharing about their recent lives in a sharp way that emphasizes both strengths. The mothers loop in their storytelling, with stories about their respective childhoods and thematic hints about what this teaches us about modern life. And then the father hovers in the background, the most distant of the protagonists, and not really much of one himself, preferring to tell .

The downside to this sort of storytelling approach (with a fixed order for each of the characters) is that it doesn't always work as a whole book. In the case of Beyond Babylon, I explicitly think it hurts the novel as a whole. Rather than feeling expansive and epic, each subplot feels perpetually truncated. The rhythm constantly felt just off, especially once three of the characters begin to narrate around similar events. There's an unsettling quality that feels intentional and well-placed, but the overall effect is still one of a story that isn't quite grounded enough in what it's trying to say.

This is another of my major criticisms of Beyond Babylon. The book touches on a lot of different themes, not least because its characters are all so thoroughly different from each other that they each have their own unique contribution to the story. And so we have stories about Somalia, about Italy, about toxic relationships, about sexual abuse and its after-effects, about Argentina's Dirty War, about the diaspora, about the concept of self, about bodies, about family, about identity... The themes end up largely overwhelming any semblance of story that lurks within each individual narrative, and certainly whatever overall message Scego wanted to convey. The individual pieces are there, but they don't really fit together.

It means that the novel as a whole just doesn't really flow well. Each character has such a strong voice that the transitions are jarring rather than identifying, which is such a shame given how well Scego gives them life. And the messages and themes that Scego explores end up feeling thin rather than part of a greater whole. Without getting into specifics, the novel's ending only emphasized the book's flaws, with a truncation that didn't actually wrap the story. At times, it felt like Beyond Babylon was little more than a vessel for conveying certain ideas. which is definitely a legitimate writing choice, but not one that works very well when the story is both so expansive and... padded.

There's a lot I liked in Beyond Babylon. Scego's writing often sizzles and it really is remarkable how well she managed to differentiate between her different characters (in many different ways). Scego also has a wonderful eye for cast-off comments that linger for pages afterward, whether in small observations or world-building remarks. There's so much excellent work going into play here that it ends up more disappointing that the book as a whole doesn't fully work. I'm not disappointed to have read it, but I'm also not sure I can recommend it to most readers. Beyond Babylon inspires admiration and recognition at best, not adoration. As a reader who lives and breathes emotional responses, that's just not enough for me.

1 comment:

  1. You capture my thoughts -- pluses and minuses -- about Beyond Babylon perfectly, Meytal. Unfortunately, though, I didn't/couldn't finish. The combination of lack of flow and presence of padding did me in, though I thought a lot of the material was both interesting and important. Aaron Robertson's translation is very lively; it felt like he did an admirable job with an extraordinarily difficult text.


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