Last Updated on August 24, 2022
There are books you devour. And then there are books you nibble at in small chunks, books you need to savour because they are revelatory in so many different ways. And Babel by R.F. Kuang is one of the latter. Subtitled , or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, it is made clear from the beginning that this isn’t your average dark academia themed fantasy novel. As we have come to expect from Kuang after The Poppy War (see our review here), there is a tonal shift within the novel. This takes it from relatively quaint academic setting, exploring the experiences Robin faces as a mixed-race Chinese-British student at Oxford, to a high-stakes revolution, to questioning the British reliance on colonialism and on the labour of people who are essentially the fruit of that colonialism.
Kuang can write. We all knew that going in, but it feels like she’s levelled up again since The Burning God. Her prose is delightful and straightforward, epic and hitting exactly where it hurts. Babel features main characters with Chinese, Indian and Caribbean heritage among various other flavours of cultural diversity. This means that we not only get to see the experiences of an outsider in a traditional institution like Oxford, a place that even today is dominated by those who fit a certain mold and have followed a set path from childhood, but we follow characters who are strangers to nineteenth Century England as a whole. People who most at the time wouldn’t consider worthy of an education. People who are taught to be grateful for every scrap they’re given and every bit of bad treatment – because they should consider it more than they deserve.
Babel isn’t an easy read. As readers we are confronted with our own failings, with places where we as a society have been complacent and have been letting others suffer because we didn’t speak up and fight for and with them. It is a book that ends in tragedy, in a devastating ending, as even the title hints at. But through this, through the writing and it’s brilliant characters Babel is also a rewarding read. It is a compelling story, one that is told with nuance and makes the reader reflect, and possibly changes them for the better. Babel is the kind of book that you will need to read and reread to fully grasp, and every new read will reveal new details to you, new elements to focus on. This is a book like a university degree – the amount you get out of it is proportional to the energy you put in, and if you’re willing, is infinite.