‘Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.’ (pg. 1)
With a first sentence like this, it’s clear that Spanish author Andrés Barba has no intention of making his novella, Such Small Hands, a simple or happy read. Barba’s previous writings have won him a handful of Spanish prizes, and I’d be surprised if this novella didn’t at least put him in the running for international recognition.
Although the book comes in at under 100 pages, there is an entire world between its front and back cover. Barba takes the concept of childhood as we know it and shatters it into hundreds of unrecognisable pieces. If you thought young girls playing with dolls was an innocent image, this story will force you to reconsider. Such Small Hands is harrowing, eerie, unsettling, and deeply uncomfortable at times. And I’m here to convince you to read it in spite and because of these qualities.
The novella opens with protagonist Marina, a seven-year-old girl dealing with the trauma of having survived a car accident that killed both of her parents. Primarily, this is her story. We follow her through hospital visits and therapy sessions. We are there for her move to an orphanage full of young girls just as broken as she is. In one hand, Marina holds ours. In the other, she clings to a doll given to her by her psychologist. Also named Marina, this doll becomes the work’s primary metaphor. What might seem like an innocent plaything grows to have implications beyond those we could have imagined.
‘The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.’ (18)
Such Small Hands is not just Marina’s story. The novella is divided into three parts, and its chapters alternate between third-person descriptions focused on the protagonist, and first-person plural narration depicting the collective voice of the other girls at the orphanage. The story doesn’t just scratch the surface when it comes to exploring the lives of these girls. It digs its claws in deep enough for their experiences to bleed onto the page. As we read, the sting is sharp.
‘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… Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were.’ (35)
The novella effectively navigates the relationship between Marina and the young girls, which is complex and contradictory. One minute, they are in awe of her. The next, they are pulling her hair and calling her names. Marina doesn’t know how to react to her sudden circumstances any more than the girls know how to interact with her. Because of the binary narration, we see this dynamic from both perspectives. For someone who has never been a young girl, it is remarkable how accurately Barba captures the intricacies of all that entails.
As you read, you can’t miss the constant references to the animal world. In one portion, Marina stabs and kills a caterpillar. In another, more significant scene, the girls are taken to the zoo. They comment on wolves, seals, peacocks, and notice that the elephant is ‘bigger, and sadder, and more like us’ (70). Only after I finished the book did I make the connection. As soon as Marina enters the orphanage, she is labelled an outsider. As the girls say, ‘it was in her nature to be excluded’ (88). Marina is a zoo animal behind the bars of a cage she hasn’t chosen to be in. And she can’t escape.
‘…we pulled her hair. Nausea made us salivate and the saliva was like blood: how easy it was to humiliate. But she had humiliated us, too. She was so serene when she approached; she was happy. So without a word we pulled her hair. Maybe Marina had already had her hair pulled, too, but not the way we did it.’ (49)
To say that Barba plays with our emotions would be an understatement. Obviously, we are made to feel sympathy for Marina, but it’s not quite that easy. As a protagonist, Marina simultaneously invites love and encourages repulsion. The impact of her trauma extends beyond her own fragmentation. Part Three of the novella details a game which Marina teaches the other girls after bedtime. A game that encourages them to express themselves in ways you would never expect. Barba’s plot marries feminine innocence and animalistic violence to create an unpredictable and explosive ending. I dare you to read it without flinching.
‘Only the game remained. Only the game was slow and puzzling. It was important to remain solemn, to let all ideas filter through the game.’ (84)
The writing of Such Small Hands reads as choppy, which both is and isn’t a critique. The short sentences and loose fragments make this a difficult read. Though not a long a story, it’s hard to follow a thought when you’re constantly forced to stop and start. The style, however, is deliberate. It’s Barba’s tool for characterisation, and an effective one, too. For these little orphaned girls haven’t had a chance to properly express themselves. They don’t finish their thoughts, because they don’t know how to. They don’t know what it means to live in the world, let alone how to speak about that experience.
‘Nothing brings two people closer than being scared together.’ (60)
This is one of those books that grows on you, but only after you’ve finished it. While my original Goodreads rating was 3/5 stars, I soon upped it to 4. The more I think and read about this book, the more I appreciate what Barba does with language, character, and genre boundaries. Technically, this novella can be finished in an hour. I’d argue, however, that such a rapid reading would prove impossible for psychological and physical reasons. In Such Small Hands, Andrés Barba gives a voice to the voiceless. As soon as you pick up this book, you have agreed to listen. Not only that, but you have committed to carry this story around with you. It will forever be stored somewhere inside your person. At some unpredictable point in the future, perhaps a rainy Monday afternoon at the bus stop, or a weekend excursion to the local zoo, you’ll remember Marina, the orphans, and their unforgettably tragic story. Who knew such small hands could make such a large impact?
Andrés Barba is a Spanish writer. He has worked as a teacher of Spanish to foreigners at Complutense University in Madrid and now gives writing workshops. He established his reputation with the novel Los hermanos de Katia (2001, made into a film by Mijke de Jong), the book of novellas La recta intención (2002), and the novels Ahora tocad música de baile (2004), Versiones de Teresa (2006, awarded the Torrente Ballester Prize), Las manos pequeñas (2008), Agosto, octubre (2010) and Muerte de un caballo(2010, awarded the Juan March Prize). In collaboration with Javier Montes, he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for La ceremonia del porno (2007). His writing has been translated into eight languages.
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Review by Alice Kouzmenko
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