Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba is a haunting novel about a little girl, Marina, who is sent to an orphanage after her parents die in a car crash that she survived. The other girls at the orphanage, however, aren’t so welcoming. They want to love her, but cannot; Marina wants to be accepted by them, but isn’t. Barba explores the inability to communicate and the heightened reality of childhood as his characters cannot break out of their fated roles and barrel on toward inevitable tragedy. It’s a short book at 97 pages, but the prose, mood, and intense characterization gripped me long after I put it down.
The first chapter nearly turned me away from the entire book, though. Barba’s style is very prose-heavy, rooted in repetition, idea fragments, and abstractions. I enjoy how the chapter starts off with the various repetitions of the line “Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.” But then Barba veers into an abstracted description of the car accident, with lines such as: “The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself.” and “She said water the way you think of water when you learn that the human body is almost entirely made of it: an abstract water turned solid.”
This stylistic choice echoes the fact that Marina cannot “recall with any precision until four months later” the details of the accident, yet she experienced it and absorbed that experience bodily and subconsciously. I recognize the intent of this stylistic choice, and logically, I know it makes sense; but as I read it, I found it difficult to jump into the prose until the second chapter when the style was less heightened.
That said, the prose throughout the rest of the novel is stunning. It’s not too overworked, and it demands a slow reading. I relished every word, allowed myself to dwell on the similes and metaphors, the imagery, the mood. That was easy to do with similes like “Marina was still watching the words as if they were an airplane, flying from one end of the hospital room to the other” and “Like a glass, her face filled up with humiliation.” The imagery is equally stunning and crisp, especially the central image of a doll that’s carried throughout the novel: the doll Marina carries with her from the hospital, the doll-like Marina at the orphanage, the chosen doll in the girls’ nighttime ritual, and Marina as the doll.
The mood is perfectly written — it’s dark, gray, creepy, and deep and loving at times; Barba never breaks the spell. In fact, the effect is spell-like; I was entranced while reading the book, caught in a nervous tension wondering what would happen to Marina and the girls given the overarching dark feel of the prose, but also empathizing with them.
The characters feel both inevitable but full and deep. Both Marina and the girls are fleshed out and dynamic characters. Through the changes in point of view of narration, Barba shows all the characters’ turmoiled internal states: Marina and the girls love each other. They want to understand the other better; they long to be like the other; they want to touch the other; but they do not know how to show this love and longing. Several times throughout the novel, Barba explicitly states; “she…didn’t know how to communicate her desire.” The girls and Marina’s rich inner emotional lives display themselves in jagged actions that often communicate the opposite of their intentions. They cannot break the communication barrier.
And this is where the inevitability seeps in. From the day Marina arrives, she and the girls are fatefully locked into their roles: the group and other. No matter how they desire to break down those roles, they cannot; no matter how much they want their lives to return to “normal,” they cannot. They are children, after all, and their wants and desires get muddied in their follow-through and actions. Group and other try to communicate, but it never comes out right; they are stuck in their parts. It seems there is no other possible ending—one can’t live while the other survives.
The inevitable build-up to the ritualistic murder never seems obvious or cliche because the pacing is deliberate. Barba layers external conflict between Marina and the girls with internal conflict, showing readers those thinly-sliced layers that build and build on each other until something terrible has happened. It is this masterfully handled pacing and layering that make the resulting murder understandable to readers; it happens slowly, then all at once in the very final pages of the novel. There is no resolution, or, the murder is the resolution. The murder resolves the tension between Marina and the group; with Marina gone, there is no other. And thus the novel ends.