Such Small Hands, a novella originally published in Spanish in 2008, is a chilling and Kafkaesque story of childhood trauma that asks the question: can children ever be guilty of wilful cruelty? While Andrés Barba is the author of twelve novels, very few have been translated into English; one can only hope this remarkable book goes someway to changing that.
Such Small Hands tells the story of the young girl Marina, who survives a car crash that kills her parents and is transferred to an orphanage where she develops a relationship with the other girls that is a jumble of conflicted and confused emotions: love, fear, jealousy, and hatred. The events culminate in a conclusion that echoes the book’s epigram:
And when the doll was so disfigured
that she no longer looked like a human baby,
only then did the girl begin to play with her.
ANONYNOUS, A Woman in Berlin
From the accident, Marina comes away damaged, physically and psychologically. Lifted onto the stretcher, feeling pain like “an electric charge”, Marina asks “What’s that white stuff?”. “Those are your ribs.” comes the reply. Sat up, Marina sees the extent of her injury: “the motionless arm, the raw flesh, the gaping flesh, sliced so cleanly that the skin fell away like a curtain, her ribs.”
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My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.
These words are presented as a refrain throughout the book, words that Marina has learnt by heart and yet are uttered as if the words themselves have no meaning: “Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old.”.
Marina herself doesn’t seem capable of making any meaning of the trauma she has experienced. When delivered the news of what’s happened to her mother and father, Marina’s reaction is cold: “They’d laid everything out beside her, ready for a panic attack, but the attack didn’t come…The girl doesn’t erupt, doesn’t cry, doesn’t react.” In the hospital, where the doctors and psychologist come to see her “every morning and every afternoon”, Marina feels “the obligation to be human, to cry and stamp her feet, to suffer”, an obligation she had yet to meet.
The adults surrounding Marina expect her to process her reaction to the trauma, to reach the acceptance stage of her grief, but her inability to sheds Marina of her childlike innocence. The psychologist gifts a doll to Marina, “to make her a real girl once and for all.” Marina names her doll after herself, a discovery that comes “Suddenly. As if it were a revelation.”
The doll comes with Marina to the orphanage, where she clings to it for protection, love, and trust, but it becomes a source of jealousy for the other girls.
There is a clear demarcation between Marina and the girls, who are presented as if as one:
They’d been stripped of something childlike and yet their faces were childlike, it was as if their bodies had developed too early, before their faces, or their faces too late, a step behind their bodies. Maybe that’s why it was so hard to tell them apart.
This conformity is made explicit when Barba frequently alternates to the first-person plural, giving the girls’ a single voice, such as when they steal and destroy Marina’s doll so that perhaps she will pay attention to them:
One Wednesday night we stole Marina’s doll without her realizing, and she woke up in a panic. Now she was unprotected, like us.
Andrés Barba captures the sense of timelessness of childhood, where past, present, and future are blurred, and the unknown stretches seemingly into infinity. The girls attach an assumed history to Marina, where she has already lived lives they’d all never have the chance to see.
She’d already lived so many things. She buried her head in the pillow and saw everything, she rested her head and it was heavy as a rock, filled with memories, she pressed down on her pencil (How many pencil had she had? Thousands? Millions?) and even the pencil was a little envious, wishing she would use it to write all those things that Marina had already lived.
Though Marina’s doll is gone, she invents a twisted game, explained to the other girls in the dark at her bed, to replace it:
“Each night, one of you is the doll. I put on her makeup, and she’s the doll. And the rest of us look at her and play with her. She’ll be a good dolly, and we’ll be good to her.”
There’s a growing sense of uneasiness throughout the book, as we dread what Marina or the girls might do. There are occasionally hints at violence, such as during the day-trip to the zoo where Marina first hints at the game they’re going to play that night, as if inspired by the animalistic behaviour she observes:
We watched them feed the tigers…and put down enormous slabs of raw meat for them… They coiled around like ivy, their backbones coming together at a single lump of flesh and fury so that they resembled a make-believe, three-headed creature creature, devouring the meat. Their snouts covered in blood. They had told us tigers were beautiful; they lied to us.
Here we see how the adults’ (“they”) perception of something being beautiful turns out to the children to be lie. This revelation echoes the notion throughout the book that children are not the pure and innocent “beautiful” creatures that adults perceive them to be; like Marina’s doll, they can be broken.
The twisted game Marina and girls begin to play is often accompanied by an unsettling nursery rhyme, sung “almost in a whisper”:
Minne Minnehaha went to see her Papa,
Papa died, Minne cried,
Minne had a newborn baby,
Stuck it in the bathtub to see if it could swim.
Such Small Hands is an intensely creepy book that throws a light on an idea that adults find difficult to comprehend: that children can be capable of cruelty that destroys the entire notion of childlike innocence.