“In Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, a traumatised young girl’s arrival in an orphanage is the trigger for an explosion of love, hate and repressed desire.”
Featured in The Guardian’s Best Fiction Books of 2017.
Such Small Hands is a story that doesn’t relate reality; it creates a new one, a reality that brings forth the darkest emotions. It makes one ask oneself how childhood should be represented or written about, especially when one considers that one doesn’t usually remember most of one’s childhood.
The story follows Marina after her arrival in an orphanage. Her parents have died in a car crash, and she intrigues the other girls. At the same time, they are loathed to take her in and make her one of their own. Barba uses two perspectives – that of Marina which is told in the third person and that of the other girls brilliantly related through the use of the plural first person ‘we’. In doing so, Barba manages to create a sense of distance and alienation. The girls bullying Marina aren’t seen as individuals; instead, the use of the ‘we’ makes them almost a mob or subject to mass hysteria giving us a view of their actions through a different lens. It renders childhood as an alien fact and makes it incomprehensible – something we can no longer relate to.
Through the use of unusual yet striking prose and the haunting ‘we’ perspective, Barba shows us that our memories of childhood are wrapped up in nostalgia and its softening effects. He showcases childhood as almost a nightmare. The vacillation of the girls towards Marina and her doll, their envy of Marina’s privileged circumstances and the chilling game that Marina proposes all serve to remind us that we wear nostalgic blinders when we reminisce about childhood. The reality can be much more terrifying.