Read an advanced copy on NetGalley
Trigger/Content warning: death of a parent, racism, microaggressions, colonialism, imperialism, gun violence, blood, vomiting, sexual harassment, murder, suicidal ideation, child abuse, parental abuse
When Robin Swift’s mother dies of cholera in Canton, a British professor Richard Lovell whisks him off to England to be trained in Greek and Latin to attend the translation program at Oxford University. He befriends his cohort of three other students, Ramy, Letty, and Victoire, but what lies beneath is a mechanism that furthers white British supremacy and goals of global domination. This book and its characters are having none of it, and it begins an exploration of the role of language and translation as a weapon and tool of colonialism.
Magical, nuanced, intense, and gut-wrenching, this is definitely going to live in my heart as one of my favorite reads of 2022.
I have been dying for a dark academia the likes of Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko that makes the actual academics part of the darkness and the horror. But there is also a reverence for a place and what it does to a person in a moment of time. There is clear affection for the time spent at Oxford throughout the narrative, but also a contempt for its legacy and what it does to the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students that walk through its halls. Babel does not flinch at the intensity of the academic rigor, but also at the precious moments of genuine connection among our four main characters, Robin, Ramy, Letty, and Victoire. Academia is far more than an aesthetic here—it serves almost as a character itself, with the complexity of the living people within its hallowed halls.
What I also find most fascinating is how much of this book is an exploration of theme rather than a character-driven, plot-focused journey. There is an elegance with the plot progression, but so much intricacy with regards to how the magic works and what Kuang is trying to say with this narrative. This is absolutely a thematic exploration on the role of language and translation, and what happens when both are used as another commodity like precious metals or luxury goods. There is clear enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge with the way concepts and words move between languages that, honestly, was such a joy to read. It’s clear that Kuang had a blast writing the specifics of match-pairs and the literal magic of silver-working, while also tackling the nuances of being a foreign transplant in a culture that seems to hate, well, everyone that isn’t them.
That all being said, the characters themselves are also incredibly compelling. In one volume, Kuang pulls off what feels like the impossible with having four incredibly developed characters, even though the story is told entirely from Robin’s point of view. This book also hit me directly in the feels, as someone caught between the culture of my upbringing and the culture of my contemporary life. He expresses so much interior rage, with measured responses, and a complexity that is painfully relatable. The arc of his family history between trying to fit in with Professor Lovell and his own heritage, coupled with the twist that he has a half-brother that is a literal revolutionary. It had me clutching my head and screaming because the angst is so tasty and meshes so well with all the other themes found within these pages.
If you’re looking for a book that spends its time roasting the British and showing profound contempt for academia’s role in colonialism and imperialism while also having deep love of its characters and respect for the rigor of academics, there’s a reason this book is definitely added to my new favorites of all time.