In today’s society we most commonly depict childhood as a time of wide-eyed innocence and purity. Spanish author Andrés Barba takes that idea and turns it on its head as Such Small Hands explores a different kind of childhood – one of games and rituals, rage and violence. A world where, unsurprisingly, children can be incredibly cruel.
Seven-year old Marina has been injured in a car crash that has killed her parents. Recovering from her injuries in hospital, she repeats the refrain
My father died instantly and then my mother died in the hospital…
It is as if this simple statement of facts, overheard from a doctor, will create a framework within which she can make sense of what has happened to her. Once her treatment is over, she is sent to an orphanage, where she stands out because of her aloofness, her experience and her scars. The girls sense an ‘other’ and veer between bullying the child and being in thrall to her. They are both drawn to and repelled by what she has already experienced, a trauma they feel that they can never know.
We’d been happy until Marina showed up with her past. We held it in then. But later, when we went out to play, we didn‘t know what to do with that thought; we were plagued by a feeling of rage and surprise, and we wanted to gnaw away at her, little by little.
Barba offers two perspectives throughout this slim novella, both from Marina and from the other girls at the orphanage who act as a sort of Greek chorus, sharing a unifying collective voice.
As the girls’ feelings towards Marina become more confused and confusing, they transfer their anger and incomprehension towards her doll – the one item she has brought with her following the accident.
Then she’d go back to her doll, that hateful doll – and she loved it – she’d stay away from us at recess with her doll in her hand and she’d love the doll. She’d go home to her memories. Did she tell the doll what she remembered? Maybe. She talked to her, and we felt her hanging around our neck, that tiny little thing that was Marina’s doll, that thing she loved instead of loving us.
Unable to destroy Marina, they destroy her doll but then Marina invents a night-time game where one of them becomes a doll for the rest to play with. Soon, the lines between the imaginary and the real become horribly blurred and a kind of group hysteria ensues.
Desire was a big knife and we were the handle…
Such Small Hands is a short book that features many of the usual horror tropes – creepy dolls coming to life, out of control children, a spooky orphanage, the disrupting ‘other’ – but Barba uses these conventions in a very knowing way to create a world where fear comes from not what is unnatural, but what is normal. Here are a group of children with a very shaky grasp on reality. They have experienced loss, and in Marina’s case, trauma, and all their feelings of hate and love and tangled up with their inability to articulate their fears.
This inability to make their feelings known verbally means they express them in a more direct way, a way that they themselves cannot name.
They put a name on everything. They said, ‘Look what you did’. The names scared us. How is it that a thing gets caught inside a name and never comes out again?
Such Small Hands is beautifully translated by Lisa Dillman. She captures the wonderful strangeness of tone, the odd unaffected style of prose and a creeping sense of dread that is beautifully sustained.
Barba perfectly captures that strange balance between the real and the imaginary in children’s play and explores how, without guidance, the two can become terrifyingly blurred. This is a subtle study in how evil can take root and how childhood trauma can be more frightening than anything that goes bump in the night.
Not all children have lost their parents to a violent death, just as not all children have been orphaned, but most of us will have childhood memories of being bullied, ostracised, feeling lonely, or turning to a toy for comfort and that’s what makes Such Small Hands an incredibly effective and incredibly creepy book. Despite the oddity of the subject matter, it is unsettlingly easy to relate to.
I read Such Small Hands as part of my Novels in Translation 2018 challenge (in a change to my published list!) , but it also perfectly fits in with my RIP Challenge this September and October. All the challenges!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!