Portobello Books is a publishing house to watch out for.
In 2015, it released the marvelous The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Hang which turned out to be one of my top reads that year. It’s a story about how a supposedly unremarkable woman decides one to day to become a vegetarian and shocks not only her husband but her whole family and the consequences this act has for everyone (this might not be such a big thing in our world and we are free to make that choice, but in a rigid society such as Korea, it is considered an act of rebellion).
I loved that book unreservedly and have always been keeping a close eye on Portobello’s catalogue every year.
When Portobello published Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, it caught my fancy. The premise of the novel was intriguing and the cover also had a lot to do with it. It’s quite creepy with the doll on the front.
Onto the story then…
This is how the novel opens:
Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.
“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones that Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve; expectant, incomprehensible words.
Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.
Meanwhile, in the hospital, a psychologist is trying to help her cope and gives her a doll.
The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.
Marina is then told that she will be taken to an orphanage. She has no clue what an orphanage is, obviously not ever having been to one before.
It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.
It’s at the orphanage where the story shifts to a whole new level.
Up until now, the story is told from Marina’s point of view. But once the focus is on the orphanage, the author’s narration shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.
In an interview, Granta asked the author what drew him to the collective ‘we’ voice – the chorus, the voice of the other girls. This is what he said:
“I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognizing that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.”
The moment Marina makes her entry, it is evident to the girls that she is different. And they do not know how to deal with it.
Marina’s individuality poses a threat to an otherwise calm existence the girls had been leading. Prior to her arrival, they all did the same thing, followed the same routines.
But once Marina is in their midst, they become aware of themselves, of their bodies in a way they never did before.
We don’t even know if we actually saw it: Marina’s scar. We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide. Suddenly, we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.
And it all started there, like a breach, in her scar.
We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.
The girls are also not quite sure how to deal with Marina. They sense she is different. And that makes the girls love her and loathe her at the same time.
During the daytime, the girls are mean to Marina and treat her badly, and yet they are also fascinated by her and want her to be part of them. During the nights, Marina holds some power over them, inventing games that the girls want to eagerly play.
This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.
I didn’t quite love this novel when I was reading it. And yet I was transfixed by it. As the novel veered towards its conclusion, it got murkier, haunting and gripping. More importantly, a few weeks after having read this book, it has stayed quite fresh in my mind and I continue to think about it from time to time; all of which are hallmarks of a very good novel.
Translation credits go to Lisa Dillman.