‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba (Review)

I won’t be abandoning female writers completely now that Women in Translation Month has come to an end, but I do have a few books by male authors that came in recently to get through over the next couple of weeks.  That starts today with the latest book in English from a writer with a big reputation and a growing body of work in translation.  This one is all about what children get up to when the adults aren’t around, and while it’s a relatively small book, it contains some very big secrets…

Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands (translated by Lisa Dillman, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) introduces Marina, a young girl who tragically lost both her parents in a car crash which has left her scarred, but alive.  After a period of rehabilitation at a hospital, she is taken to an orphanage, her home for the foreseeable future, with only her new doll for company.

The other girls at the orphanage have a happy life, but Marina’s arrival upsets the equilibrium, casting a shadow over their days.  Despite their desire to get along with her, the dark-haired girl with her sullen face (and creepy doll) just doesn’t fit in.  What ensues is a tale told from two sides as Marina and the girls describe life at the institution, which has rather different aspects depending on the time of day: when the sun is out, the new girl is shunned and picked on; at night, she becomes their leader. However, children can be rather cruel, and the games they play spiral out of control, almost without their realising it…

Barba has already had two books out in English, courtesy of the ever-interesting Hispabooks (Rain Over Madrid, a collection of four novellas, and the short novel August, October), and this is another impressive effort.  It’s a beautiful work, in terms of both content and appearance, and while it’s a relatively brief piece, there’s so much there to reflect on that a reread is inevitable.  Lisa Dillman, who is in the enviable position of translating both Barba and Yuri Herrera, has done her usual excellent job here, making Such Small Hands a delight to read.

Which is not to say that this is all easy going.  In truth, Barba’s latest work is a rather dark affair, in which he examines the psychology of young girls in a closed environment.  The real start of the story is Marina’s arrival at the orphanage, an event that disturbs the happy, organised life of the other girls:

“This is Marina,” they said.
And yet she didn’t look like us.  She had dark-girl eyes.  How could we describe her?  How could we say, “This is what Marina was like the first time we saw her”?  We might get tired, we might start to describe her and then have to keep going back to clarify things, and nothing we said would be right except for the feeling that you couldn’t really see all the way inside that girl.
She was always on alert.  Always.
p.32 (Portobello Books, 2017)

What they experience after the initial meeting doesn’t make them feel any better.  They’re taken aback by her dark moods, uneasy at the constant sight of the small, pretty girl standing ominously in front of the black statue of Saint Anne outside the building, and the reader initially shares their sense of foreboding.  When we later see Marina creeping out of bed in the middle of the night, sitting next to the girls’ beds to watch them sleep, it isn’t hard to share their feelings.

Cleverly, though, Barba turns this around by shifting the point of view, showing us how the other girls, frustrated by Marina’s otherness, begin to put her in her place.  Ignored in class and bullied in the playground, Marina just wants a way to get involved, even if she doesn’t really want to become another indistinguishable part of the group.  And it’s here that the doll motif comes into its own – when her own toy is stolen, she decides that it’s time to start a game in which the girls themselves are dolls, taking it in turns to offer themselves up to the group.

Part of the success of Such Small Hands is the way the narrative is structured.  Once the initial premise is set up, the story alternates between third-person pieces focusing on Marina and a Greek-Chorus-style first-person plural in which the other girls as a whole explain their swings between adoration and fascination:

Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to.  An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us.  We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared about the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert. (pp.70/1)

The story constantly pivots on the feelings of the girls towards Marina, their breathless fascination with her stories of the outside world and their willingness to submit to her commands during the game contrasting with the ostracisation in class and the petty bullying in the playground.

What comes across strongly in all this is the sense that for the most part the characters’ behaviour is unconscious.  Far from planning to victimise or worship Marina, the girls are simply swept along by their emotions, unable to step back and consider whether the way they’re acting is appropriate.  While there are some adults in the story (virtually always described merely as ‘an adult’ or ‘the adults’), they’re shadowy background figures outside the main story, leaving the children to their own devices – and that’s the problem.  The girls have no idea how to deal with the swirling emotions caused by the change in their daily life, torn between the powerful feelings of attraction and repulsion they experience around Marina, often simultaneously:

We loved her furtively then.  Her eyes smiled sadly, the house relaxed, and we had to be very still and wait, to watch her again. (p.49)

And that’s after a little light bullying…  There’s a definite Lord of the Flies element to the book, and as you can imagine, it’s unlikely to end well.

In short, Such Small Hands is a wonderful short novel, complex in its ambiguity despite its brevity.  Just as the girls struggle to come to terms with their emotions, the reader is never quite sure whose side they should be on, if anyone’s, right to the bitter end.  Portobello have been very successful with translated fiction in recent years, with Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days taking out the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian being awarded the Man Booker International Prize a couple of years back.  Short as it is, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Such Small Hands ended up in serious contention for next year’s MBIP – you heard it here first 😉

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