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Breakfast in Babylon

by Emer Martin

This is a debut novel by a young Irish woman currently living in New York. One suspects it is highly autobiographical, as the heroine Isolt drifts through Israel, Greece, Paris, Amsterdam, London and New York in the course of the book, places in which the blurb tells us Emer Martin has also lived and travelled. The book is Isolt’s bildungsroman, and we follow her formative years as she moves from nihilism to the dawning of a feminist consciousness.

The milieu of the novel is the seedy underworld of squatting, begging, drug-dealing and drug-taking, and small-time scams. All of the characters are firmly outside mainstream society, living in literal and metaphorical exile, like the Israelites in Babylon. (The title also refers to Sevres-Babylone, the spot in Paris where many of them gather for breakfast each morning.) Indeed, when Isolt is asked where she finds hope to go on living, she replies: ‘"I have no hope. I can only live on the streets. I might really go mad if I was forced to rejoin the ranks of society."’

But Isolt is doubly alienated, firstly as a drop-out, and secondly as a woman within that sub-culture. She is sickened by her own absence of power. One of the most interesting things about the book is that it presents the Beat experience from a female perspective. The world of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg et al contained no country for young women, nor does its present day equivalent, if we are to trust this tale. Yet Isolt’s deliberate choosing of life on the road is intimately bound up with her perceptions of her gender-role: ‘It was only when she reached puberty, and discovered what it was that the world wanted from her as a woman, that she began to hate herself and the world.’ She becomes an outsider twice over, the lowest of the low.

Most of the misogyny in the book is personified in Christopher, Isolt’s American husband. He married her to be legal in Europe, she married him to get a Green Card. But what began as a mutually beneficial no-strings-attached arrangement progressively becomes more serious and ends up in mutual loathing and recrimination. The most harrowing episode in the book is when he keeps her hostage for two weeks in their squat on the Old Kent Road, while beating, raping and starving her. ‘"There’s no such thing as rape in marriage,"’ he declares at one point.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is that here we have a young Irish writer who is not overly concerned with the navel-gazing search for a definition of Irish identity. Her young people have already taken their place among the international underclass. Isolt’s friend Oonagh, speaking as an exile, underlines this point: ‘"Everyone I know over there is unemployed...Most of my friends have emigrated anyway."’

But, at the same time, Breakfast in Babylon is far from being a simplistic ideological tract. As Isolt reflects, towards the end: ‘We have all been born with homeless souls.’

For these and other reasons this work deserves your attention.

First published in The Big Issues


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