cover image Breakfast in Babylon

Breakfast in Babylon

Emer Martin. Mariner Books, $12 (321pp) ISBN 978-0-395-87595-7

Winner of Ireland's prestigious 1996 Book of the Year award, this startling debut delivers a gritty, knowing transatlantic response to the current U.S. trend in ""tough girl"" writing. It traces the path of a young Irish woman, Isolt, as she wanders through London, Paris, Munich, Amsterdam and Israel. This journey takes her up and down the rotten underbelly of the New Europe, through a shadow-world populated by drifting bands of misfits: drug addicts, social welfare scammers and vagrants-by-choice who winter in Northern Europe's inner-city squats. Half anarchist, half waif, rebelling against the system but often tossed and bruised by the predominantly male world of the street, Isolt survives on her lust for life and thirst for adventure. She falls in love--and out--with Christopher, ""The Hoodoo Man,"" a charismatic but manipulative drug dealer and addict from Detroit (Martin handles the metamorphosis of this relationship from misguided love into nightmarish abuse with enaging insight). Isolt makes some friends--most notably Becky, a junkie who dies anonymously in a derelict cellar--and many acquaintances: victims of empire, small-time opportunists, refugees from political slaughter or miserable family lives. Despite the grimness of her subject, Martin enlivens her work with dark, often hilarious humor, and disarming compassion. Isolt's personal confusion is affecting, but it is her articulate reflection on the plight of others that most touches the reader. Like the work of a latter-day, punk Breughel, Martin's large tableau encompasses a whirl of memorable characters in beauty, brutality and humor. (Sept.)