I began reading Come Barbarians, Edmontonian Todd Babiak’s third novel, with the misconception that the characters would be based on the author’s own life. Perhaps I made that assumption because Babiak spent a year living in France with his wife and their two young daughters.
But, while his intimacy with the country shines through in his vivid, clear descriptions of the cities, streets, customs and people – the whole French way of life, really – the novel is not a re-telling of Babiak’s time in France. Rather, it is a dark, twisting jaunt from one devastating event to another, the tale of a desperate man who faces evil and heartbreak in equal measures. Babiak’s protagonist, Christopher Kruse, takes us through the back alleys of Paris and Aix-en-Provence, where he searches for the people responsible for destroying his family.
Kruse faces many sinister men along the way, and Babiak creates taut confrontations that balance brute force with clever – albeit, sick – methods of torture (there is a scene involving a cheese grater that won’t leave your mind anytime soon). While reading Come Barbarians, I can’t help but wonder if Babiak spoke with a sociopath or gangster for his research into interrogation methods, or if he simply has a really, really good imagination.
But it would be inaccurate to paint the novel as just a violent thriller or even just a murder mystery; there are too many heart-wrenching moments, too much love and definitely too much loss to ignore. The story is truly about the characters, and the savagery is merely a byproduct of the journey Kruse is forced to take to get what he needs. Babiak walks his characters along a tightrope of emotion and erratic behaviour, and takes you along for the ride. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s dramatic without being over the top, gruesome without being too gory and desolate without being depressing. (HarperCollins, 288 pgs)