Babel by R. F. Kuang | Book Review


Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was a real journey to read; it was not what I expected, but it was magnificent in other ways.

Genre: Historical fiction, with a touch of fantasy
Author: R. F. Kuang
Published: September 2022
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 542 (paperback)

I think like many people I went into this expecting an awesome history-steeped fantasy story. Babel includes so little fantasy that it’s almost a lie to categorise in that genre, however. This is a book about racism, colonialism, and bias.

It is also a story about the beauty of language, and the lovely way diversity in language represents the different ways we go through the world and perceive it. And of course, the impossibility of perfect translation (literal and non-literal).

And it’s beautifully done. It’s also very slow and an effort to persevere with. As my boyfriend put it (forgive me Chris for stealing your words), the plot would score a 2/5 star rating, but the rest of it (social commentary and representation of bigger issues) would score a dazzling 5/5 star rating.

This is a good book to read to mull over, discuss and stretch you mind to all corners of understanding about race and prejudice. It is a dark, heavy book and indeed should come with trigger warnings for death, suicide, intense grief and hopelessness. Not a book to read if you’re not in a good place.

Despite being baffled at the 200 and still at the 300 page mark over where the plot was and where it was going, I still found this engaging to read. If you shift your expectations of this book to experience a well-articulated story about the impact of colonialism, the difficulty of understanding the oppression of people who share nothing in common with you, and the inescapability of violence in the face of a lack of compassion, then this will exceed expectations.

I will let other people, better placed than myself, to analyse and discuss the characters of Victoire, Ramy and Robin. All I will say, is that they are deeply real and beautifully complex. Kuang did a fabulous job tackling these issues through these characters as her vehicle.

Letty is a white woman in this story who is a part of the four friends, and whose story always bounces up awkwardly against theirs due to her inability to find an angle from which she can truly understand their sufferings. She is a complex character, who you hate and like. She is prickly and difficult, yet she represents so well the moment in time before someone is able to understand the systemic issues surrounding them, but not touching them – she is the person before they find the compassion and motivation to listen, really listen, and pick apart their own realities and versions of truth to understand. She is the inability to understand the collective problem – the bigger picture – and see past the individual’s experience.

She frequently sparks frustration within you as her characters flares up the despair of the incompatibility of their differences, of false allies, and she often made me feel hopeless that we will ever reach equality.

Many of the events and attitudes in this book feel inevitable and perpetual, too big to change. And that is the point of the book, I think, to give you a taste of how the characters feels, no matter which character inspires that for you.

But even more than that, Letty, I thought, represents the utterly complex and nuanced nature of social issues – how neither side is 100% right or 100% wrong. And I thought Kuang conjured that really well in the confused and anguished character of Letty.

This book does much more than offer a story for fun and enjoyment. It’s heavy hitting and I’d really recommend it as a must-read for those eager to listen and learn. I think this book will haunt me for a long time to come.

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