Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Translated by Lisa Dillman
I had forgotten that it was Spanish Literature Month, but just in time a new arrival has allowed me to take part. This novella, by young Spanish author Barba (right), is published on Aug 3. He is one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish novelists, and has written twelve novels already.
Such Small Hands is a profoundly unsettling novella in a Daphne DuM or Shirley Jackson sort of way. At 96 pages, it has to be read in one sitting and disturbs even before you open the front cover, with that waxy pink doll looking at you!
Such Small Hands is the story of a seven-year-old girl called Marina who is orphaned when her parents die in a car accident; she too was badly injured. On the first page she learns how to describe her situation:
“My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.”
During her rehabilitation in the hospital, she is given a doll which she calls Marina too. Her only possession, Marina the doll becomes her alter ego, and Marina channels everything into the doll, while outwardly remaining emotionless.
When Marina arrives at the orphanage, she and her doll are objects of immense interest to the other girls, upsetting their established hierarchy and taking attention from them. They respond by excluding her from their skipping games, bullying her whenever they can. Marina seems mostly unperturbed, playing with her doll, which is perplexing to the other girls – who would after all rather love her than hate her. She gets her own back at night; she wanders the dorm when they’re all asleep.
She’d slip out of bed felling the cold floor tiles beneath her feet and creep over to one o them. She’d get so close her lips would brush against her. She’d think, “If she woke up now she’d see me,” and that thought frightened her. She’d rest her head very carefully on the pillow, inhaling the girl’s breath.
Just like pain. Exactly like pain.
Then one night the other girls steal Marina’s doll.
“Give her back, give me my doll back,” she said.
So we gave her a leg. We broke it off.
Halfway through the story, this is the turning point. Marina comes up with a plan to control all the girls – one by one. From this point, there is a creeping inevitability to the story’s conclusion, it’s a matter of how and when, but the climax is really quite shocking.
All the way through, the voices telling the story are the girls. However, Marina excepted, it is rare that a single voice of one of the others breaks into the text. Instead, they act as a Greek chorus – talking as ‘we’, which really builds the tension in the story. It becomes Marina versus a kind of hive mind.
As a portrait of the moods of childhood, the need for love and the hurt when it is refused, unthinking exclusion and unwanted interfering, low grade bullying, Barbas really nails it in this small community of young girls. Then he takes it up a level and shows us the horror of what happens when it’s taken to extremes, all cleverly executed out of sight of the adults who haven’t a clue what’s going on.
With the girls’ chorus and Marina’s internalisation, there is a dreamlike quality to the text, although it is only dreamlike in so far as nightmares always lurking nearby. Translator, Lisa Dillman has, I discover, translated several other novels by Barba and I am now very keen indeed to read more by this brilliant combo of author and translator. An afterword by American author Edmund White, explores some of the themes and the inspiration behind the story and makes for a fitting end to this little book. Highly recommended. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – Thank you.
Andrés Barba, trans Lisa Dillman, Such Small Hands (Portobello, 2017) Hardback, 112 pages.