Last Train to Babylon
By Charlee Fam
Published by William Morrow – 28th October 2014
ISBN 0062328077 – 352 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads First-Read Giveaway
What I found most striking about Fam’s debut literary novel is just how effectively she takes the strengths of the short story format and applies them to the longer form. The plot of Last Train to Babylon is basic: Aubrey Glass, a young woman with a history of mental darkness and suicidal sentiments returns home for the funeral of her former best friend Rachel who has recently killed herself. Aubrey’s struggles to get through the present collide with traumatic memories dredged up from her past as she reunites with family and former classmates in the wake of Rachel’s funeral and questions over what had finally pushed her to take her life.
Alternating between events from the past and Aubery’s current situation Fam uses Aubrey’s point of view, flawed personality, and simple, honest narrative voice to delve into incredibly important themes revolving around young women growing up in America. Many of these issues are uncomfortable, ferocious and dark and Fam manages to balance this all with a certain touch of light humor and irony. The seriousness of some elements: suicide, rape, assault, bullying, shaming are treated responsibly, but it does bear mentioning that for readers who have experienced any of these to extremes in their own life may find this a difficult or triggering novel. For it seems so real, with a sad beauty that comes from delving fully into what humanity is capable of, in this case specifically how young girls can treat one another and how society pressures them to behaving or being in expected ways.
A short story can typically manage to address one, perhaps two, specific elements such as these for a protagonist. Fam extends that literary focus on characterization to encompass more temporally, and a greater network of issues that young women can be faced with. She doesn’t change the heart of a good shorter work, she just keeps up the same brilliance for the expanded explorations possible in a novel.
On the one hand both Audrey and Rachel are sympathetic, relatable characters and they have certain aspects that one may find likable. But they are each so powerfully realized as realistic humans that they are filled with flaws and cruelty to the point that they can also at moments completely disgust. Some readers may shun this kind of literary realism, but surely that is exactly how each of us are, filled with moments of exquisite nobility one time and ugly savagery another.
The Last Train to Babylon has its darkness, but it is emotionally moving to all ends of the spectrum of empathy. How much of this is personal for Fam or creative genius is unclear to me, but I will happily reach for her next publication based one how strongly this one makes readers feel, and how relevant and important the themes she tackles are.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from William Morrow via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.