Posted in Books, Politics, Reviews

The Approximation of Meaning: Book Review – Babel by R.F. Kuang

I’ve been sitting at my desk for half an hour, staring at a blank Word page, surrounded by bits of scratch paper that contain hastily scribbled, half-formed thoughts; wracking my brain, typing and deleting in quick succession, attempting to figure out how on earth I was going to write this review.

I want to write it in a way that will do it justice, because I think this is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. 

I first bought Babel because, ever since I started studying Mandarin a year ago, I have been obsessed with authors and stories that give voice to the history, culture, and experiences of the Chinese people. When I learned that Babel’s author and its’ main character were Chinese, I immediately made my way to the nearest Waterstones to buy a special edition of the book, with its spray-painted edges and beautifully made cover. 

I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. The blurb was quite vague and didn’t give a lot of information about the plot, apart from the fact that the story was set in Oxford and is a reimagined history of the British Empire, with hints of magical realism involved. I was half afraid it was going to be another dark academia novel that was overly long and exceedingly pretentious (I’m looking at you Atlas Six), with entitled, self-involved characters that half the readers wouldn’t be able to relate to. 

The truth is probably quite the opposite. Babel is fundamentally a story about people who struggle with their place in this world, whose lives are driven by a desperate wish to be recognised as people, rather than as objects. It is without a doubt a commentary on the impact of colonialism, and the problematic issues of class and racial divide that comes along with it. 

I would love to be able to discuss these very important matters, especially in light of the current geopolitical climate, where countries are being affected by the actions of a mad tyrant, and where the world and its leaders are increasingly focused on what divides, rather than on what unites. However, I don’t feel like I can broach these subjects with any kind of credibility. I can’t even articulate my political views to myself, let alone to the 360-odd followers of this blog (only 5% of whom will actually read this post).

My book reviews have always been personal, and I always talk about the things that really resonated with me. And there is a specific moment in Babel that turned this from just another book that I would have forgotten about in a week, to a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.