There is something endlessly fascinating and even slightly creepy about children – or more particularly the liminal space between childhood and adulthood. You can see it in Edvard Munch’s painting, Puberty, and the discomfort it provokes. You can see it in John Wyndham’s book, The Midwich Cuckoos, in films like The Omen and more recently L’Innocence and The Falling. Andres Barba’s small novel, allegedly inspired by a real incident that occurred in Brazil in the 1960s, is firmly in this camp.
We first meet Marina, the young girl at the heart of the book, as she is told about the death of her parents, killed in a car crash. She was in the car with them and received an injury:
“the motionless arm, the raw flesh, the gaping flesh, sliced so cleanly that the skin fell away like a curtain, her ribs.”
The accident sets her apart, makes her different. She spends time in a hospital, time with a psychiatrist; we sense she isn’t quite reacting as the responsible adults would like her to. Eventually she is taken to an orphanage. The children there wonder about her before her arrival. Will she be tall? Will she be pretty? Suddenly everything is a question. Marina has a doll, whose eyes are quickly broken so that irrespective of whether the doll is horizontal or vertical, the eyes are always open. The other children covet the doll, steal it in the night, tear it apart, bury it next to a caterpillar Marina randomly killed.
Barba has an eye for uncanny detail. Here is Marina watching another girl in the orphanage at lunchtime:
“One girl has a noodle stuck to her face, by her mouth: a tiny white noodle like a headless little worm, sleeping there. Marina stares at the noodle as if it were a slow plague…”
In some ways it’s the same world inhabited by Tracy Chevalier in New Boy (a world of jump rope and whispered words) but oh, in other ways, how different it is. How close. How fearful and real.
“She heard her steps grow daintier as she rushed off across the playground, and a moment later the sound was barely audible. The voices of the other girls playing still echoed off in the distance, but their song was no longer the one that sang to the rhythm of the jump rope, it accelerated like a crazy dance, their voices shriller, more piercing, almost inhuman.”
The strange and strained relationship between Miranda and the girls at the orphanage compels with its cruelty – the ways in which the girls punch and pull her hair during the day, the way in which she orders them about in the darkness of night, playing a game in which she transforms first one girl, and then another, into the doll she once kept so close to her person. It is the game, in the end, that is the culmination of all of the hints and glimpses of malevolence offered up and we watch as Marina participates, asking questions, voicing reluctance, even as step by step by step we are made to accompany a character to her doom.
A short afterword from Edmund White makes the piece darker still, the girls in the original story (the allegedly true story) behaving like Dennis Nilsen. All told, it’s a slight but dark and affecting book, a story that conjures Jeffrey Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides, if the girls in Eugenides’ book had tried their hands at murdering others rather than themselves.
Any Cop?: Whilst we don’t quite agree with Edmund White (he makes a claim for Barba as a new Kafka), Such Small Hands is promising and definitely worth a read.