Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, is precisely what I expect from writer and historian R. F. Kuang. It’s complex and highly literate. Plus, the struggle between colonizers and those they oppress is at its core. The characters are well-developed, flawed, and fascinating. And Kuang skewers academia, capitalism, and industry. Most importantly, she builds an alternate reality worthy of the dozens of footnotes.
Our main character is born in Canton, China, in the early 1800s. His family perishes in a cholera outbreak, but an Englishman, Professor Lovell, fortuitously offers to take him in as a ward. In the process, this young boy chooses an English name, Robin Swift. He’s already gifted with languages, and Professor Lovell starts schooling him on their voyage to England. Once there, Robin is tutored in multiple languages and subjects. The goal is University College at Oxford University, specifically the institution called Babel, where translators learn their trade.
Robin is a quick study and soon becomes close to the other cohort members at Babel. There’s Letty, born to privilege in England. The second woman is Victoire, a formerly enslaved person from Haiti by way of France. And last is Ramy, a young man born in Calcutta and brought to England, similarly to Robin’s own experience. The four form tight bonds.
Combining Social Commentary with an Alternate Reality
Kuang traces their path through four years of college, detailing the slights from other students due to their outsider status as women and people of color. We learn along with them how things work in this alternate reality. The English Empire depends on silver engraved with pairs of magically combined words from different languages. I’ll let Kuang explain this complex idea, which she does expertly. As the cohort gets deeper in their studies, they learn that the Empire depends on and exploits people from countries with non-Romantic languages. The characters in Chinese, for example, are a wealth of nuanced words with multiple and complicated meanings. And there are few Mandarin or Cantonese speakers in England, so Robin’s knowledge is highly valued.
But Robin also begins to see a huge divide in how the upper and lower classes use silver. It’s used to make life easier for the wealthy. And conversely, it helps automate various industries to push the underclass out of work. As a Chinese man, Robin sees this for what it is and decides to work for the oppressed. And while he’d like to work inside the system, he finds another option that proves more dangerous.
I appreciate Kuang’s ability to make the world of Babel come fully alive in the book. As a result of her words, I imagine the tower where the library, workspaces, and classrooms exist. I feel the darkening claustrophobia of Oxford academia and the excitement the young scholars have about their burgeoning knowledge. And Kuang also makes the global power imbalance eminently clear, even taking us on a journey with the young students to Canton. I cringed at the old, white men’s racist attitudes and cheered whenever they got a bit of comeuppance. But nothing is simple in this world, and that’s part of its appeal. Kuang kept me guessing until the very end.
Babel isn’t all history and social policy. It’s also a story of maturation and the bonds of shared experience. Kuang expertly develops the character of each student and a few other vital members of her cast. Each one experiences snobbery, whether based on financial status, gender, intelligence level, or race. How they deal with this is an essential element of the story.
Kuang’s writing style is unique. Be prepared for lots of detail, including footnotes with information from Kuang’s built world and our reality. After closing the last page, I immediately realized that I could read this book multiple times and continually find plenty of nuances.
I recommend Babel if you enjoy dense storytelling with history and social policy at its core. And if you appreciate vital fantasy elements. This was one of my favorite 2022 books!
Thanks to NetGalley, Avon, Harper Voyager, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review. Babel’s publication date is today, September 23, 2022.