An epic spread across three nations, Beyond Babylon examines the lasting effects of traumas both national and personal. Telling the lives of two half-sisters who meet coincidentally in Tunisia, their mothers, and the elusive father who ties all their stories together, Igiaba Scego’s novel spreads over Argentina’s horrific dirty war, the chaotic final years of Siad Barre’s brutal dictatorship in Somalia―which ended in catastrophic civil war―and the modern-day excesses of Italy’s right-wing politics.
...a variegated tapestry that unfurls over more than 400 pages and weaves together myriad stories, voices, settings, and time periods ... novel that interrogates language, race, and identity from beginning to end ... resists the unifying force of fascism, and rejects the ideal of having only one identity, whether it be national, cultural, sexual, or otherwise ... steeped in bodily imagery and thick with bodily traumas ... this focus on the body and its functions, its innards, its mysterious and occult workings, its cramps and urges, is particularly resonant ... ironic, ebullient, and melancholic in turns...more comic than tragic, clamorous in spirit as opposed to a lament ... There is no better time than now to bring this novel into English ... a novel that takes the act of confusion—literally, the melding together of disparate elements—to its highest and most articulate level.
Scego doesn’t make any stylistic overtures to spare her readers’ feelings. Trauma is spoken of plainly and bodily ... And yet the register of each of the interwoven sections of the five characters is warmly humorous, superbly rendered in Aaron Robertson’s sensitive translation from the Italian ... Scego interweaves her characters with a keen eye for patterning ... Though the narrative’s tendency to fold back on itself is at times demanding, the novel’s generosity of sympathy relies on this narrative looping ... there is a freshness to the way Scego depicts their daily interactions from the perspectives of both mothers and daughters ... The swing to right-wing governments, the reassertion of national borders and the xenophobic fear of refugees and migrants are never far from its centre. Beyond Babylon ultimately succeeds in rendering these on a human level.
The reader of Beyond Babylon is able to make connections between the five characters’ lives and feelings that the characters themselves do not always make ... The power of the novel is the unexpected links among these different characters and places ... Not only do the characters at times see how their stories intertwine with others’ experiences, but readers may also see their worlds reflected in the stories ... Beyond Babylon is a brutal book that vividly describes multiple rapes, desperate poverty, suicide, forced abortion, racist violence, torture, clitoridectomies, and death in childbirth. But it is not without hope ... The work is full of characters who take joy in their ability to express themselves through music, dance, clothing, poetry, and prose.