Such Small Hands is a newly (Portobello, 2017) translated novel[la] by the Spanish writer (and “Granta Best of Young Spanish Novelists”) Andrés Barba. Originally published in 2009 as Los manos pequeñas, Lisa Dillman’s translation brings Barba’s dark, enthralling story to an English-language readership for the first time. It is a short novel about a young girl (Marina) who is sent to an orphanage following the death of her parents in a car crash. Barba’s narrative and Dillman’s translation of his prose combine to create a text that is haunting and powerful, difficult, tense and dark, looking at the anger of children, the resentment of those who grieve and the importance of emotional engagement to tame and control our darkest impulses.
The book opens with the scene of tragedy, the scene of death, where a fatal car crash is described with tense and significant detail, emphasising the importance of blunt physicality to the text as a whole:
“What’s that white stuff?”
“Those are your ribs.”
This is harsh but realistic, dark and physical, human and deeply involving. The text shifts between third person descriptions of Marina’s life from the crash onwards and a “Greek chorus” (to use Edmund White’s term from the largely superfluous afterword – it’s a fine review of the book, but I don’t understand why it’s been included here) style polyphonic first person plural voice of the other girls who live in the orphanage.
As Barba’s text develops, we become aware of the reasons behind Marina’s firm exclusion from the other girls in the orphanage. Not only does she possess a huge, disfiguring scar on her torso, but she also is far closer to having had a family than any of the other girls. The long term residents of the orphanage function as a unit, they are as one, they are distant and together in their loneliness. They pester Marina with questions about family life, about family holidays and about domesticity. She is alien to them not because she is an orphan, as she would be in most social scenarios, but because she has so recently not been one. This, in itself, is an emotive and weighty idea, and Barba treats this tone and storyline with subtly and firm effect.
Marina, as part of her recovery from the crash, is given a doll, which the other girls steal and then remove its limbs. As time passes, Marina raises her status amongst the girls, switching from being their bullied inferior to the one who controls them. She is never “of” them, never of the same status as the others, and Marina eventually leads them all into playing a game where, each night, one of the girls becomes a doll, and the rest of them treat her body as if it were an object, not a human. This inevitably leads to discussion of burgeoning sexualities, but tied with a developing interest in violence and possession. As Marina’s narrative reaches its conclusion, Barba pulls his narrative taut and the reader is left in a Lord of the Flies type awareness of the potentiality for cruelty that comes from children without supervision.
As the book goes on and the actions of the children become more destructive, the action of the novel slips from daytime to night. We are no longer with the children as they play and learn amongst their carers, but we are instead with them when they are, quiet, whispered, illicit, in their dormitories at night. An awareness of the wrongness of their actions is evidenced by their secretiveness, and Marina’s position as chief, as leader, of the group is never in dispute, even when she is demanding, with masochistic intent, her own loss of status amongst them. With Such Small Hands, Barba has written a novella that is powerful and unnerving, psychological and shifting, taut and satisfyingly tough to read.
Worth a look.