Andrés Barba - 'Such Small Hands' is a magnificently chilling antidote to society’s reverence for ideas of infantile innocence and purity. Instead, Barba drags his readers into a hyper-real world of childhood, where children are the objects of horror and their games, rules and rituals the stuff of nightmares

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Andrés Barba, The Right Intention, Trans. by Lisa Dillman, Transit Books, 2018.

Nothing is simple for the men and women in Andrés Barba's stories. As they go about their lives, they are each tested by a single, destructive obsession. A runner puts his marriage at risk while training for a marathon; a teenager can no longer stand the sight of meat following her parents' divorce; a man suddenly fixates on the age difference between him and his younger male lover. In four tightly wound novellas, Andrés Barba establishes himself as a master of the form.
Lonely, desperate, obsessive characters inform the stories in Barba’s latest collection.
Barba (Such Small Hands, 2017, etc.), an acclaimed Spanish writer, is a master of the novella. Shorter than a novel, longer than a story, the novella is an underused form in American fiction. That’s unfortunate because, done right, it’s as exacting and harrowing as anything else you’ll come across. Needless to say, Barba does it right. His most recent book to appear in English contains four novellas. The characters they describe are destructive, lonely, obsessive. In one, a teenage girl, desperate to disappear, becomes anorexic; in another, a newly married man gives himself over to training for a marathon to the exclusion of everything else. They’re each consumed by the need to gain control over their own bodies. In Nocturne, which opens the book, a 56-year-old man takes up with a 21-year-old boy but can’t escape the fear that the boy will leave him. Like the marathoner and the anorexic girl, what he yearns for is a way to control his own desire, to overcome it entirely. Descent, which closes out the book, describes a trio of grown siblings and their tyrannical mother, who has fallen down and broken her hip. But as with the other stories, a plot synopsis doesn’t do Barba justice. These plots are deceptively simple. What’s not simple are the characters themselves, the ways that they struggle, and yearn, and fall down. Barba’s not eager to help them back up. There are no happy endings here, no false resolutions. Instead, we get the uneasy, unsettling mysteries we get in our everyday lives.
A gorgeous, fully realized collection in which each novella can be appreciated on its own as well as in concert with the others. - Kirkus Reviews 

Andrés Barba blew onto the American literary scene last year when Lisa Dillman’s translation of Las manos pequeñas (Such Small Hands) was published last April by Transit Books, a new press dedicated exclusively to translations. A slim book from a foreign author published by a small press could easily have come and gone without much notice, but Such Small Hands became something of a sensation in the translation world, scoring reviews in big publications and the devotion of independent bookstores around the country.
Such Small Hands, originally published in Spanish in 2008, is eerie and all-consuming. The book was inspired by a few lines from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s story “The Smallest Woman in the World” that describe an incident in a Brazilian orphanage in the 1960s in which some girls took the life of a fellow orphan and hid her body for a week, punishing and playing with it. Barba explodes this purportedly true story into a full-blown examination of the inner psyches of orphanage girls, starting with the arrival of seven year-old Marina who is subsequently bullied and adored. The plot of Such Small Hands is fantastically creepy, mysterious, and enticing, but what is perhaps most exciting about the book is not the haunting games of orphanage girls; it’s how convincingly Barba portrays them.
His ability to inhabit the mind and language of his characters is a skill equally present in his second book to be published in the US, The Right Intention. In this collection of stories, Barba crafts four separate worlds using very little description, matched by Lisa Dillman in a hugely satisfying translation. His writing is populated mostly by the inner thoughts of his characters, and from there the reader can imagine and construct all the scenery, the full backdrop to their reading experience. Whereas Such Small Hands was almost otherworldly, each of the stories in The Right Intention feels utterly real. What Barba seems particularly interested in showing his readers is that moment of tension when the character knows they’ve gone too far. They’re already hurtling towards their own demise, or someone else’s. Their mind was most likely made up before the story even started. Marina of Such Small Hands comes up with an idea for a sinister game that results in her own catastrophic end. In each of the stories in The Right Intention, Barba shows us four people on their own road to ruin.
In “Nocturne,” Barba illustrates a love story that never has a chance to succeed because of one man’s crippling self-doubt. The story opens with a the narrator obsessing over whether or not to contact the author of a cryptic personal ad: I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 4177681. After days of gnawing curiosity and desire, he finally submits and contacts Roberto. What follows seems to be a love story in the process of unfolding, but there are clues that the narrator will wreck everything, whether he plans to or not. Barba is interested in revealing the subtle ways in which people so easily take happiness and distort it into something ugly, the way people allow things that once inspired love to embody vitriol. Roberto’s age, at first enticing, becomes a source of pain as the narrator becomes “aware of the fact that there was a huge part of the twenty-one-year-old boy’s life that he would never be a part of . . . He was young, insultingly young, and always would be.” The narrator, incapable of letting himself go in the relationship, turns his fear of being rejected for his older age into something he despises in his young lover, and morphs his fear into cruelty, treating the boy (as he takes to thinking of him) with utter contempt, forcing an endgame. In under 60 pages, Barba takes us through the full gamut of emotions of someone who finds himself the object of a love that seems too good to be true, and who can’t help but accelerate it into oblivion.
In the middle stories of the collection, Barba tackles the impulse to destroy oneself from the inside out, using physical pain to erase emotional trauma. The characters of these stories drive themselves to physical and mental ruin to escape emotional pain. Barba illustrates how what looks like complete control can easily disintegrate, leaving utter chaos. Reminiscent of Such Small Hands, the tenuous connections between characters are rendered with aching clarity. Barba often traces a clear line, studying his characters’ mental and physical degradation as a result of the very thing to which they have turned as a means of emotional escape.
The final story, “Descent,” zooms in on a woman whose mother is sick in the hospital. We are thrown into the midst of her family drama when old pains resurface as the matriarch inches towards death. Whereas in the first three stories Barba’s characters seem intent from the start to tunnel into their own demises, in “Descent,” Barba presents his character with clear opportunities to choose between allowing her mother some final moments of joy, or enacting secret vengeance. In what is perhaps the least interesting exciting story of the collection, Barba and his translator nevertheless demonstrate a masterful ability to capture the atmosphere of the moment. The characters think thoughts that at first seem cruel, but quickly register as familiar, relatable. For example, as the woman reflects on her relationship with her mother, she compares her family to her husband’s: “When she first met Manuel’s family, she got the feeling that their relationships were completely unreal . . . Discovering later that their affection was genuine turned her against Mamá in a subtle way, because in the same sense that Manuel’s mother had been solely responsible for the love in his family, Mamá must have been to blame for the distance and envy in hers.” This resentment towards her mother culminates in the decision to inflict on her “the ultimate punishment.” Through a mundane story of relatively typical family drama, Barba reveals the surprising levels of cruelty we might be capable of reaching when a lifetime of anger, shame, and sadness morph into something else entirely.
Whether he’s writing about teenage girls in an anorexia treatment center or a man literally running away from his marriage, whether the story is creepy and enthralling or bordering on dull, Barba’s undeniable skill lies in crafting convincing characters that feel like friends, or like enemies, or like people you hope never to meet, whose downfalls feel dangerously possible. Edmund White said that with Such Small Hands, “Barba has returned us to the nightmare of childhood.” Perhaps with The Right Intention, Barba has revealed to us the nightmare of existence. - Emma Ramadan

“If only he could put into words what he feels it would be almost like thinking clearly, but he cannot think clearly.”
This is the distress signal sent up at a crucial juncture by the protagonist of “Marathon,” the third of the four novellas in Andrés Barba’s The Right Intention, a collection originally published in the author’s native Spain as La recta intención in 2002. With its intimations of an inability to communicate, paranoia, and worse (note that “almost”), it’s a moment of realization that could define any of the main characters in these stories—all of them well-off urbanites who succumb to a single, overwhelming obsession. The destructive consequences of those obsessions, traced with an almost clinical precision, are the substance of Barba’s absorbing, unnerving stories.
In “Nocturne,” a single, comfortably settled gay man in late middle age finds his life of routine upended by an infatuation with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The lover has no illusions about the life of quiet desperation he’s been leading, the disappointment he’s kept at bay: “It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years.” The same objectivity manifests itself later, once the affair reaches the abrupt end he has done so much to bring about, when he declares to the younger man, all too plausibly, “now it’s going to take me five years to get over you.”
Barba raises the stakes, and heightens the emotional pitch, with “Debilitation,” an account of a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia. Her dysfunction starts with an unwelcome poolside kiss—“Luis’s ridiculous, almost unpleasant tongue like a soggy worm wriggling against hers”—and proceeds into a gruesome body horror of cutting and self-starvation before she winds up in an expensive private clinic. Inside, her steely will has to contend with not only a strict, eat-your-peas kind of authority but a witchy fellow patient and an unlikely love interest. Closure, recovery are still somewhere over the horizon when “Debilitation” reaches its close, but at its moving climax her pain unspools in a three-page sentence that is a tour de force for the translator, Lisa Dillman, as well as the author. (Here as in the other stories, Dillman’s skillfull rendering of Barba’s free indirect style, along with a number of casually deployed colloquialisms —“frumpier,” “meds,” terse teen-speak like “Are you into me?” and “It’s pretty messed up”— results in a text that stands on its own in English as a stylistic feat.)
From this ordeal it is a relative step down in intensity to “Marathon,” which might be described as a study in the obnoxiousness of the long-distance runner. Training for an upcoming road race with increasing single-mindedness, Barba’s marathon man is willing to jeopardize both his marriage and a nascent friendship with a fellow runner, conceivably the one person in his life who might be able to understand his fixation. As maddening as the athlete’s behavior is, Barba makes sure we tunnel into his perspective: “If anyone had asked if he was happy he wouldn’t have known how to respond. Perhaps by saying that he felt empty, and that emptiness was, if not happiness, then the closest thing to a state of calm he’d ever known, a calm that didn’t need to be spoken or shared.”
In the final story, “Descent,” a grown, married woman with children has to contend with a sudden injury to, and the subsequent decline of, her elderly mother. The ordeal is made even more trying by the fact that the dying woman is a horror, a tyrant whose neediness and emotional manipulations have turned her three grown children into basket cases. You might think this means the most extreme story has been saved for last, but there’s a subtle change-up in Barba’s approach here, a pulling-back from his previously tight focus, that makes “Descent” the most human and accessible of the four novellas. The material has room to breathe; not just because this family’s backstory is effectively sketched in over a few pages (and because the main character is given a supportive husband, free of her family’s pathologies) but because there’s a sense of contingency, an arbitrariness in the way events unfold around us, that eludes any fine-meshed authorial net. In the climactic deathbed scene, especially, absurdity tugs at mortality’s hem in a way that resonates with one’s own experience of this terminal moment. The young priest who arrives to administer the last rites is both awkward and incongruously handsome—and then: “Life, made more ridiculous by the presence of the hospital window, is the sound of a bus horn.” More than any of the other novellas in The Right Intention, this story made me curious to see what Barba can do in a novel.
As it happens, last year Transit Books brought out a 2008 Barba novel, the well-received Such Small Hands, also in a translation by Lisa Dillman, and he has written twelve books of fiction and nonfiction overall. He has also translated a pair of stylistically extravagant nineteenth-century literary renegades, Herman Melville and Thomas De Quincey, into Spanish. All of which furthers the impression one gets from The Right Intention that an American readership for this talented writer is overdue.
But if one can lament how long it took for The Right Intention to receive its passport into English, there’s a certain piquancy in the way these stories, encountered in 2018, evoke an irrecoverable moment that isn’t even twenty years in the past. Meaning, the short span of our millennium just prior to the arrival of cell phones, texting, social media, and all their attendant compulsions. (In a sequence that seems like a kind of historical fiction, the lover in “Nocturne” races from newsstand to newsstand to track down a copy of the magazine with the right personal ad in it.) Which isn’t to suggest that this quartet of novellas allows the reader to indulge in any easy nostalgia. Sentient people—the kind of people who read fiction in translation, for instance—like to chide themselves for the way the devices in their hands are rewiring their circuitry, messing with their heads. Barba’s stories are a bracing reminder that we were finding plenty of ways to torment ourselves long before the latest technologies made it so much easier for us. - Jeff Tompkins
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Andrés Barba, Death of a Horse, Trans. by Lisa Dillman, Hispabooks, 2018.

An outstanding short novel by an author included in Granta's " - Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists."

A professor and a student in a nervous courtship are driving to his friend's country house for a weekend. Towards the end of their journey they come upon an accident in the road where a horse is fatally injured. The lovers try to help, something that will put them through their first disagreements and towards their first truly tender moment. With his insight into the sweet jerkiness that defines our romantic encounters, Barba portrays the fragile atmosphere between two people.
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Andrés Barba, Such Small Hands, Trans. by Lisa Dillman, Transit Books, 2017.

The Guardian Best Books of 2017

Life changes at the orphanage the day seven-year-old Marina shows up. She is different from the other girls: at once an outcast and object of fascination. As Marina struggles to find her place, she invents a game whose rules are dictated by a haunting violence. Written in hypnotic, lyrical prose, alternating between Marina’s perspective and the choral we of the other girls, Such Small Hands evokes the pain of loss and the hunger for acceptance.

“Every once in a while a novel does not record reality but creates a whole new reality, one that casts a light on our darkest feelings. Kafka did that. Bruno Schulz did that. Now the Spanish writer Andrés Barba has done it with the terrifying Such Small Hands.”—Edmund White

This novel has all the intensity of a fairytale as it leads the reader by the hand into the dark forest of imagined childhood, into the land of pre-language. The story centres on that archetypal children’s fiction character – the orphan – the child cut off from the intimate influence of the adult. It is set in an orphanage all the better to focus on the fervid energies of the young girls.
There are small moments which irritate but ultimately it’s an achievement of impressive and brave imagination in which Andres Barba creates a world that is measured and experienced without the mediating tool of language, a world in which the use of language is on the horizon. The terrain of childhood is brilliantly described using other experiential coordinates – a sensing of space, of weight, of lightness, of smell, of dark.
“The news travelled through their skin, through the contact of their elbows at the table.” Dark, almost fevered, energies are traced with searing honesty – rage lays side-by-side with love as day and night flip with an intensity from one to the other. A strange unsettling novel that hews a remarkable sense within itself. - Kevin Gildea

The following essay originally appears as the afterword to Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands.
Every once in a while a novel does not record reality but creates a whole new reality, one that casts a light on our darkest feelings. Kafka did that. Bruno Schulz did that. Now the Spanish writer Andrés Barba has done it with the terrifying Such Small Hands, which introduces us to the psychosis of childhood emotions and midnight rituals. This is a unique book.
It is reputedly based on an incident that occurred in Brazil in the 1960s, in which the girls at an orphanage took the life of another child and played with her body parts for a week. But Such Small Hands is not a grisly fait divers. Following the lead of Jean Genet, who in The Maids turned a newspaper account of two psychopathic servants killing their mistress into a strangely hieratic, ritualistic tragedy, Barba has subsumed the grand guignol aspects of the bloody anecdote into a poetic meditation on love and childhood.
To signal that he doesn’t intend for his novel to be just a psychological study of little Marina, unable to express her grief after her parents’ death, Barba has introduced a Greek chorus of the other orphans. They are all in love with her; her introduction into the orphanage has changed their lives. She is beautiful and small and delicate. She has a mysterious scar on her shoulder caused by the same car accident that killed her parents; it seems almost like the scar where an angel wing was removed. The orphans are fascinated by Marina who, after all, lived a normal middle-class life with indulgent parents until recently; she has only lately joined their ranks and become orphaned.
Everything she does steals their attention. For instance, for a while she stops eating, repulsed by the sight of other girls stuffing their mouth holes. She seems somehow purer and stronger because of her fasting.
Then she invents a game in which each night, after lights out, Marina chooses a new girl to play the doll—passive, silent, asleep, motionless. Each “doll” is stripped of all her clothes and dressed in a special scratchy outfit. The girls are nearly hypnotized by this game, perhaps because it appeals to everyone’s fear (and forbidden wish) to be turned into an object, without a will or even motility, the unconscious target of everyone’s attention, utterly without responsibility for one’s actions (since one has none). Marina seems to understand the appeal of the game she has devised; she hints that she will be introducing a game hours before she reveals its exact rules and builds up enormous suspense and curiosity.
“Tonight we’re going to play a game,” she said.
“What game, Marina?”
“Just a game I know.”
“How do you play?”
“I’ll tell you tonight.”
“Can’t you tell us now?”
“No. Tonight.”
Ever since her parents’ death Marina has been playing with a doll given to her by a psychologist, perhaps for companionship, perhaps as a means of externalizing her bottled-up grief. The other girls, torn between their desire to love Marina and to hurt her, steal her doll and return it only limb by limb, in a terrible prefiguring of the catastrophe of this drama.
Although Such Small Hands is constructed around a plot that has all the inevitability and dignified horror of a Sophoclean tragedy, we read it with intense pleasure not just for its trajectory but for the ingenuity of its prose. As we submit to its murmuring cadences we thrill with the recognition not of familiar, ready-to-hand feelings but of long-forgotten ones. The psychologist Jean Piaget posited that children pass through stages of cognitive development that radically affect our perceptions of the world; if we could suddenly enter the consciousness of a child we would understand nothing since a child’s mental life is organized by entirely different schemas than those used by an adult.
Barba is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory, but when we read a paragraph like this one about a dormitory of sleeping girls we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system of perception that we’ve forgotten but that is oddly reminiscent:
All together, they looked like a team of sleepy little horses. Something in their faces slackened, became friendly. They slept with an unbearable patience. When they were asleep they were like an oil painting, they gave Marina the impression that different faces rose up from beneath their faces, faces that bore no resemblance to their daytime voices: peculiar, polished faces. They had a defiant, challenging quality about them despite being at rest, like dozing predators.
This roiling, unstable perception of the surround reveals the almost psychotic, oneiric processes of a child’s mind that has not yet been able to understand the notion of object constancy, that doesn’t realize that there are things out there that remain the same no matter how they are illuminated by our imagination. Everything for a child is in flux, dangerously so, and Barba captures perfectly this seasickness, this instability.
When the girls cluster around Marina’s bed to play the dolly game, the chorus says:
How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tightrope walkers. Desire was a big knife and we were the handle.
Anyone who has ever fallen asleep during a lecture knows that the mind instantly starts producing images as one is half aware of the setting and the speech, little cartoons that try to make sense of the waking and sleeping realities. This is the unmoored, precarious image-making of Barba’s girls. They can’t explain what they’re feeling nor why, they can only paddle in this ghastly fluid between reality and fantasy. Barba has returned us to the nightmare of childhood. - Edmund White

Such Small Hands is a short three-part novel(la). It begins with the aftermath of a horrific car accident: seven-year-old Marina survives, badly injured, but -- as she then often recites, in brief summary of her collapsed world --:
My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.
       She spends quite a bit of time in hospital, where they try to help her with physical injury -- successfully, though she is slightly scarred -- and mental trauma. She is given a doll -- which she eventually names Marina as well. It is an alter ego of sorts, allowing her to project onto the object: stoically calm in its rigidity -- especially once the mechanism which had allowed its eyelids to close when the doll was laid down is broken -- and all-seeing: "she remained ever alert, like a visionary".
       Marina is taken to an orphanage -- which doesn't come with the usual bleak connotations, and is pretty and even fairly welcoming. For the girls there, it is an idyll -- knowing no other, it is their universe, and they are happily adapted to it. Marina is an outsider -- and remains outsider, among other reasons because of her memories of events and places outside this so narrowly circumscribed girl-world.
       The novel shifts back and forth between a neutral, third-person account, and then, once the action moves to the orphanage, a first-person-plural chorus -- the other girls at the orphanage, speaking as one, describing their actions and reactions once Marina is in their midst. Even as she joins them, and follows the same routines, Marina remains other: the 'we' does not include her and she is never truly one of them.
       That Marina's arrival upsets and then shatters the idyll is already hinted at in the girls' first words:
     It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.
       Both Marina and the girls act -- appropriately enough -- childishly. The girls are curious about Marina, and try to include her, yet they also remain suspicious; even as they are drawn to her, and her difference, they act out against her. They are sometimes cruel -- but also seduced by Marina, who offers a glimpse of otherness -- other worlds, other possibilities. Marina is, and remains different -- in no small part, because: "She'd already lived so many things".
       With childish cruelty Marina's doll is broken -- breaking part of her, too. Eventually, Marina is driven to desperate invention: a game, of which she is the master, in which each night a girl is turned into and treated as a doll, specially made- and dressed-up, required to lie perfectly still and let herself be treated like a doll:
     Every night we'll all get to play with the doll and kiss her and tell her secrets. And she'll just look at us and listen to us, because she loves us, and we love her, too
       It is a creepy game, but the girls are fascinated by it and easily lose themselves in it, whether in the entirely passive role of doll or in 'playing' with whoever else is in the role. Unreacting, the doll allows the girls to reveal themselves to it in the way they can not to each other otherwise; their childish limitations -- the difficulty of communication -- seem transcended by dealing with this person-as-object.. But she is not, of course, an actual doll but a living creature -- and, more than that, one of them. Each of them steps in and out of this alternate role -- both afraid and eager --, losing themsleves in the spell of this unusual game.
       Marina controls the game, as puppet-master of sorts -- notably in making up the doll's face each time -- but catastrophe comes one night when she takes on the role of the doll. She is not meant to be the doll -- "But you can't, you're not allowed", the girls protest her desire to upset their assigned roles and this order, too -- but she desperately wants to be, and eventually gets her way. The girls -- as a mass, not individuals, the madness of the crowd -- then act, and treat Marina as the doll they want her to be; they are joyous, happy -- and that in a still childishly innocent way. Indeed: "We played with her all night". But it is anything but a happy ending.
       Barba's writing here, both in the more neutral third person and in the group-voice of the chorus of the girls, beautifully fits with the subject matter. The world here is one of childish innocence -- which is, realistically, far from a pure, idealized innocence -- and incomprehension. Marina is traumatized by the loss of her parents, but can't articulate the depths of her trauma; indeed, words are often lacking here, because the children are so young that they don't yet have the capacity (or vocabulary) to formulate more complex thoughts. So too the girls both act out and realize that their actions may be inappropriate -- hitting Marina when in fact they want to draw her into their circles, for example --but can't help but act childishly-impulsively.
       The childish universe, and especially its incomprehension about the consequences of actions, as well as the depths and fluctuations of the girls' feelings -- especially the powerful swings of their love and hate of Marina -- are beautifully realistically recreated, in a simple but precise language.
       A disturbing story, Such Small Hands is exceptionally well-told; indeed,it is a near-perfect story. - M.A.Orthofer

Orphaned when her parents are killed in a car accident, a delicate little girl named Marina is sent to an orphanage, where she finds a world as mysterious and forbidding as any alien planet. In time, though, she reshapes this microcosm into her own dominion. Barba’s prose is both halting and haunting; simple balanced sentences whose opacity hint at an underlying fear and wariness. The perspective moves fluidly from the other girls at the orphanage—“Everything around her was contaminated, and so were we”—to Marina—“Marina could see the pulse on their necks, their sleep smell”—and back again. A pariah at first, Marina begins to earn the respect of the other girls when she kills a caterpillar and its burial becomes a communal act. At a seemingly random moment, Marina understands that she is different, a staggering realization that gives her a strange sense of empowerment, and prompts her to impose her will on the other girls. This transition, in which she turns the girls into her dolls (“We were all lovers and the game was our love.”) is as unsettling as Marina’s initial introduction to her new home, when she was the prey and they the predators. Interpret Barba’s elliptical story as you will, but chances are you won’t soon forget it. - Publishers Weekly

A newcomer to an all-girls orphanage invents a violent game for the other children to play each night.
Marina is in the back seat of her parents’ car during the accident that kills them both. “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital,” is the refrain she hears, over and over again, from the doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists at the hospital. It’s the same refrain she repeats to the adults at the orphanage to which she is soon taken. Barba’s (August, October, 2015, etc.) fourth novel to appear in English describes the haunting, mysterious world of prepubescent girls. He switches back and forth from Marina’s perspective to the collective point of view of the other girls. They’re a kind of unified body, and Marina, who is new and freshly beset by grief, is not unlike a virus in their midst. One day, Marina impales a caterpillar on a stick, and the other girls gather round to watch. Not long after, Marina invents a “game” for the girls to play each night. “It’s easy,” she tells them. “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.” It’s a dark, insoluble game, both erotic and violent. Barba’s descriptions of the furtive, nearly cabalistic world of children are wonderful and disturbing. The border between what is real and what isn’t has been fogged over. His writing is both lyrical and spare, and the slim volume, which can be read in a single sitting, carries a heft far outweighing its physical presence. Barba’s girls, and their game, will linger in the minds of his readers.
A darkly evocative work about young girls, grief, and the unsettling, aching need to belong. - Kirkus Reviews

BURIED IN THE MIDDLE of Clarice Lispector’s short story “The Smallest Woman in the World,” which was included in her 1960 breakout collection Family Ties, we learn of a horrifying (and purportedly true) anecdote about an incident that occurred in a Brazilian orphanage sometime during the 1950s.
Having no dolls to play with, and maternity already pulsating terribly in the hearts of those orphans, the sly little girls had concealed another girl’s death from the nun. They hid the corpse in a wardrobe until the nun left, and played with the dead girl, giving her baths and little snacks, punishing her just so they could kiss her afterward, consoling her.
Aside from evoking the image of playing with a doll, Lispector’s short story, which chronicles a French explorer’s encounter with the smallest woman of the smallest tribe of pygmies in Central Congo (also purportedly true), otherwise has nothing to do with the events at the orphanage. In a sea of several hundred sentences, the incident appears only in these two. Its connection to the story is, at best, a metaphorically moral and, at worst, a disturbingly tangential mise en abyme that jars us from our complacency but whose broader purpose remains a mystery. The anecdote compels us to consider everything from “the malignity of our desire to be happy” to “the ferocity with which we want to play.” But it is up to us to decide what it — and its relation to the broader story about the European colonization of Africa — is supposed to mean, exactly.
Andrés Barba’s novel Such Small Hands, originally published in Spanish in 2008, spends the entirety of its 83 evocative pages trying to figure out this meaning. Barba, a Spanish writer with a gift for expressing gallons of meaning from only a handful of words, has pointed to these two sentences when explaining the origins of the novel. He read them years ago and, it seems, they have fascinated him ever since. But the novel isn’t about Lispector’s short story. It isn’t even really about the anecdote. It is, instead, about something so alien to anyone who might pick it up at a bookstore: the psychological world of orphaned girls. The novel, which is set in the present, delicately observes this world mostly through the eyes of Marina, a seven-year-old girl who arrives at an orphanage following a car accident that kills both of her parents. We relive the accident and witness Marina’s ensuing haze in the hospital. Yet the people who treat her seem to be more affected by the accident than she does. Her questions about what happens next are met with the kind of incomprehension only an adult could provide: “‘You’re going to live in a nice new house, a very pretty place with other girls, you’ll see,’ the psychologist said. ‘No parents?’ ‘No. But it’s very pretty, you’ll see.’”
Depending on your cultural diet, the subject of the psychology of orphaned girls may sound either too cliché or too academic. But for Spaniards in the late aughts, attempting to understand the inner lives of children couldn’t have been a more popular endeavor. Children were everywhere in Spanish culture. In 2007, J. A. Bayona had released The Orphanage, a horror film about, among other things, the difficulties adults encounter when communicating with distressed children. The next year, just a month after Barba’s novel was published, Camino, a film about a girl who died of cancer at 14 and who is now in the process of becoming canonized by the Catholic Church, appeared in cinemas across Spain; it would eventually walk away with six of a possible seven Goya Awards — the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. And, by the end of that year, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón judicially decreed “the lost children of Francoism,” an estimated 30,000 children who were abducted from Republican parents during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco dictatorship, a crime against humanity. In each of these cases, childhood psychology — both fictional and real — took center stage: How brainwashed were these children? What could they have known about their own condition? Can society do anything to salvage their lives or their memory?
Such Small Hands unearths similar questions, not so much by providing an adult’s perspective on the matter, as these examples do, but instead by circumscribing the narrative to the point of view of children. Barba gives us two perspectives, both from the point of view of the children in the orphanage. Throughout much of the book, he alternates chapters: one from the perspective of Marina, another, from the perspective of the girls in the orphanage, who share a single, collective narrative voice. This may sound rather limiting, a self-imposed handicap on a Faulkneresque experiment in literary form. But it turns out to be liberating, in the same way that the Dogme 95 movement, which sought to free film from technological gimmicks by way of adhering to strict formal rules, yielded such master classes on scene and mood as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. For Barba, it’s the limits on narrative form that open the door for probing the psychological questions of childhood.
In the novel, the girls’ “emotions are translated into actions, sometimes touching and sweet, sometimes cruel, even violent,” writes Lisa Dillman, Barba’s translator, in her note at the end of the book. “It’s fair to say that Such Small Hands is in many ways about translation.” Without an excellent translator, such a broad view of the novel would have been lost on its readers. Fortunately for us, Dillman’s translation is exquisite, and we experience Barba’s surgical precision with tone and meaning from the operating room floor, not merely from the observation deck. With many translations, one can feel the depressions and scars from translators doing their best to stitch together myriad forms of prose in order to make up for the lack of precise English equivalents. Dillman’s translation, by contrast, is absolutely seamless. Consider, for instance, the orphans’ theory of Marina:
It was as if Marina had already seen all the movies, already gone on all field trips, already played all games; there was something terrible in her past. 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 pencils 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.
Just as Barba manages to capture the naïveté, wonder, and grandiose conclusion-drawing of what childhood thought is all about, Dillman manages to strike the right balance between not alienating readers with direct translations of labyrinthine Spanish prose while also not changing the meaning, mood, and metaphors of the original. What’s more: By the end of the book, I completely forgot I was reading a translation.
This theory of Marina, which the orphans formulate about halfway through the book, is also something of a turning point. Their earlier suspicions of Marina had been abstract. “From one second to the next something had broken: our trust,” the orphans conclude upon Marina’s arrival. They would treat her like a ragdoll, teasing her, hitting her, and making her feel like an unwelcome alien. “It was as if someone had written: ‘Now hate Marina’ and they’d all obeyed.” But, at the same time, they would hang on her every word. At one point in the novel, she goes more than a day without eating just, it appears, in order to prove it to herself. “Marina would go through what lovers sometimes do: she would become a slave more to the act itself than to the driving force behind it.” Her force of will mesmerizes the other girls. “There was something majestic and tough in Marina’s pallor,” they observe. Since that first encounter, they come to think of her as a God-like figure.
In the last section of the book, Marina invents a game in which, every night, a girl at random would be chosen to be a doll, completely at the mercy of the rest of the girls who would dress her, put on her make-up, and play with her. During the day, Marina continues to suffer the bullying of earlier, which increases with each page. But at night everything changes: the girls would worship her. As the day-and-night routine approaches its opposing extremes, their distrust of Marina resembles a loss of faith. By the end of the novel, their resolution predictably completes the Christian metaphor, with Marina as the Jesus figure. She inevitably suffers an appropriate, child-like crucifixion: as in the Lispector story, Marina becomes the doll that the other orphans will play with.
Have we learned anything about the “malignity of our desire to be happy,” the “ferocity with which we want to play,” or any of the other questions raised by the Lispector story? It’s difficult to say. The novel ends, like Breaking Bad, with a resolution in the form of a bowtie that doesn’t allow us to witness the fallout. What we learn has less to do with answering questions than with being reminded of the difficulties of childhood. Few of our difficulties, of course, compare to Marina’s. Some that do: bullying, ostracism, loneliness, misunderstanding, sadness — all of which are part of the emotional toll that comes with a new class, a new grade, or a new school. Such Small Hands returns these facts of growing up from the storage closet of mere abstractions to their proper place on the shelf of things children actually experience. Barba’s stunning and beautiful prose helps us realize that our adult incomprehension is not absolute. - Bécquer Seguín

Marina, the seven-year-old girl around whom Andrés Barba’s chilling Spanish novella unfolds, has been wounded in an accident that killed her parents, her skin flensed from her ribs “like a curtain”. She is taken to live in an orphanage – “a very pretty place”, promises her psychologist, “with other girls”. She does not, however, go alone. She takes with her a wide-eyed doll, also called Marina, which is her constant companion: “The only one who didn’t lie. The only one calm, as if halfway through a long life.”
Both child-Marina and doll-Marina become the focus of the other girls’ attention in a manner that is part cruel, part adoring and part uneasily erotic. In time their affectionate but uneasy playfulness becomes a secret night-time game, of a kind of lascivious malice that may well trouble the reader long after the book has been set aside (“Desire was a big knife and we were the handle …”). The adults of the orphanage remain peripheral, unable or unwilling to put a restraining hand on the children: the presence most strongly felt is not that of the principal but of a statue of Saint Anne, whose welcoming arms are “black and inescapable”.
Barba inhabits the minds of children with an exactitude that seems to me so uncanny as to be almost sinister – as when the girls, while washing, see Marina’s scar. The effect is of having taken a bite of Eden’s forbidden fruit: all at once they become aware of themselves as mortal, and just as likely as Marina to be wounded. But the book is by no means without relief, nor is this a cynical exploitation of an atavistic fear of the child: the passages in which the other girls narrate their regard for Marina, in a first person plural voice, have an affecting tenderness. “Were we forgiving her? Was that what love was?”
It is Marina’s scar, and what it signifies, that eventually unpins the girls from the ordinary playtimes of children. Leslie Jamison, in her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, writes of wounded women: “Violence turns them celestial … we can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.” This might have been the epigraph for the book: Marina is beatified by suffering, but the mere fact of her pain, stitched in scar tissue over her ribcage, is an enticement to more.
This is as effective a ghost story as any I have read, but lying behind the shocks is a meditation on language and its power to bind or loosen thought and behaviour. Since Marina and the girls cannot verbalise the intense confusion of their feelings, they resort to expressing them by altogether more direct means. Only when they are plainly told what they have done do they begin to think they have transgressed: “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?”
Barba’s use of genre conventions is both affectionate and knowing. All the ghost-story aficionado could ask of an evening’s reading by the fire is here: a child’s toy animated by longing and distress, and possibly by something more; an orphanage whose “classroom, dining room, bathrooms, closets [and] red-haired clown at the door with a chalkboard in his stomach” seem loaded with a malicious potential energy; the disrupting arrival of a stranger. But he also interrogates the genre, querying the limits of what it means to be haunted and haunting, and of what most affects the reader. The lingering impression is not, necessarily, that we might wake in the night, wondering if an object has moved towards us of its own accord; but that the world contains other and nearer evils that cannot be exorcised or placated.
As is ever the case when reading in translation, I wondered how closely Lisa Dillman’s prose mimicked Barba’s lexis and cadence in Spanish. From the first it is faintly odd, sometimes affectless, the phrasing occasionally slightly awry; but this is so wholly in keeping with the book’s uncanny effects and plays so significant a role in its accumulation of cool terror that I can only assume it is a superbly skilful translation playing close attention to Barba’s original.
An afterword from Edmund White refers to Barba’s source material: an episode in a Brazilian orphanage reported in the 60s. Generally I have a ghoulish look at distressing news reports; here I refrained. I was partly unwilling to fracture Barba’s fragile construction of tenderness and terror, partly too thoroughly unnerved.
The novel’s title recalls the final line of EE Cummings’s poem, “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled” (“nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”), and I found myself returning to its verses as I pondered the full effects and meaning of the book. It is, yes, about language, wounding, wickedness: but it is also about how fleeting and how vulnerable is the state of childhood innocence – that “nothing which we are to perceive in this world/equals the power of [its] intense fragility”. - Sarah Perry

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 Such Small Hands is a magnificently chilling antidote to society’s reverence for ideas of infantile innocence and purity. Instead, Andrés Barba — one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish Novelists — drags his readers into a hyper-real world of childhood, where children are the objects of horror and their games, rules and rituals the stuff of nightmares.Seven-year-old Marina is badly injured in a car crash that kills her parents. “My father died instantly and then my mother died in the hospital” is the refrain she internalises and repeats.“You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve: expectant, incomprehensible words,” the narrator explains, using fractured, sensory-specific fragments to describe Marina’s experience: a silence that’s “solidified” like a “positive form”; the white of her exposed ribs gleaming through her “gaping flesh, sliced so cleanly that the skin fell away like a curtain”; the “metallic taste in her throat”; a desperate thirst.It’s not that language isn’t adequate — indeed, Lisa Dillman’s translation is as evocative as a reader could wish for, the “muffled, maritime sound of the road” right before the crash, the moment of impact described as that in which the car “jumped the meridian” — Marina is simply too young and too traumatised to be able to articulate the experience fully herself.Once she has recovered, she’s taken to an orphanage, but Marina isn’t like the other girls there. She’s different. As they take their morning showers together, the sight of the new girl’s scarred torso precipitates the collapse of the other girls’ collective identity: “Suddenly we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.”This ominous Greek chorus begins with the low promise of danger — “One afternoon the adult said, ‘There’s a new girl coming. Don’t be scared.’ But we weren’t then. At first we weren’t scared” — but builds into a febrile, nausea-inducing hysteria: “Desire was a big knife and we were the handle.”After the accident, the psychologist treating Marina gives her a doll, but the girls at the orphanage tear the toy’s limbs from its body and bury them in the playground. Soon after, Marina invents a creepy night-time game for everyone to play — stripped bare and redressed, with their faces made up, the girls take it in turns to pretend to be the doll: “The differences between them diminished: from now on they were doll necks, doll hands, doll eyes and lips.”Like Jean Cocteau’s terrible “Game”, the bizarre version of life and death played by the teenage siblings in his novella Les Enfants Terribles, Barba’s grasp of the vertiginous balance between the real and the imaginary in the girls’ play is absolute. But whereas Cocteau’s protagonists indulge in a fantasy of childhood that keeps adult life at bay, Barba’s still undeveloped little girls have a far shakier grasp on reality. Hatred and love, rage and desire, the violent and the erotic — everything becomes entangled. As “gentleness” gives way to “incomprehensible hostility”, and the girls transform from a “team of sleepy little horses” into a pack of “dozing predators”, the path is set towards a shocking and bloody denouement worthy of the most spine-tingling horror film. -

Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands introduces Marina, a young girl who tragically lost both her parents in a car crash which has left her scarred, but alive.  After a period of rehabilitation at a hospital, she is taken to an orphanage, her home for the foreseeable future, with only her new doll for company.
The other girls at the orphanage have a happy life, but Marina’s arrival upsets the equilibrium, casting a shadow over their days.  Despite their desire to get along with her, the dark-haired girl with her sullen face (and creepy doll) just doesn’t fit in.  What ensues is a tale told from two sides as Marina and the girls describe life at the institution, which has rather different aspects depending on the time of day: when the sun is out, the new girl is shunned and picked on; at night, she becomes their leader. However, children can be rather cruel, and the games they play spiral out of control, almost without their realising it…
Barba has already had two books out in English, courtesy of the ever-interesting Hispabooks (Rain Over Madrid, a collection of four novellas, and the short novel August, October), and this is another impressive effort.  It’s a beautiful work, in terms of both content and appearance, and while it’s a relatively brief piece, there’s so much there to reflect on that a reread is inevitable.  Lisa Dillman, who is in the enviable position of translating both Barba and Yuri Herrera, has done her usual excellent job here, making Such Small Hands a delight to read.
Which is not to say that this is all easy going.  In truth, Barba’s latest work is a rather dark affair, in which he examines the psychology of young girls in a closed environment.  The real start of the story is Marina’s arrival at the orphanage, an event that disturbs the happy, organised life of the other girls:
“This is Marina,” they said.
And yet she didn’t look like us.  She had dark-girl eyes.  How could we describe her?  How could we say, “This is what Marina was like the first time we saw her”?  We might get tired, we might start to describe her and then have to keep going back to clarify things, and nothing we said would be right except for the feeling that you couldn’t really see all the way inside that girl.
She was always on alert.  Always.
p.32 (Portobello Books, 2017)
What they experience after the initial meeting doesn’t make them feel any better.  They’re taken aback by her dark moods, uneasy at the constant sight of the small, pretty girl standing ominously in front of the black statue of Saint Anne outside the building, and the reader initially shares their sense of foreboding.  When we later see Marina creeping out of bed in the middle of the night, sitting next to the girls’ beds to watch them sleep, it isn’t hard to share their feelings.
Cleverly, though, Barba turns this around by shifting the point of view, showing us how the other girls, frustrated by Marina’s otherness, begin to put her in her place.  Ignored in class and bullied in the playground, Marina just wants a way to get involved, even if she doesn’t really want to become another indistinguishable part of the group.  And it’s here that the doll motif comes into its own – when her own toy is stolen, she decides that it’s time to start a game in which the girls themselves are dolls, taking it in turns to offer themselves up to the group.
Part of the success of Such Small Hands is the way the narrative is structured.  Once the initial premise is set up, the story alternates between third-person pieces focusing on Marina and a Greek-Chorus-style first-person plural in which the other girls as a whole explain their swings between adoration and fascination:
Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to.  An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us.  We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared about the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert. (pp.70/1)
The story constantly pivots on the feelings of the girls towards Marina, their breathless fascination with her stories of the outside world and their willingness to submit to her commands during the game contrasting with the ostracisation in class and the petty bullying in the playground.
What comes across strongly in all this is the sense that for the most part the characters’ behaviour is unconscious.  Far from planning to victimise or worship Marina, the girls are simply swept along by their emotions, unable to step back and consider whether the way they’re acting is appropriate.  While there are some adults in the story (virtually always described merely as ‘an adult’ or ‘the adults’), they’re shadowy background figures outside the main story, leaving the children to their own devices – and that’s the problem.  The girls have no idea how to deal with the swirling emotions caused by the change in their daily life, torn between the powerful feelings of attraction and repulsion they experience around Marina, often simultaneously:
We loved her furtively then.  Her eyes smiled sadly, the house relaxed, and we had to be very still and wait, to watch her again. (p.49)
And that’s after a little light bullying…  There’s a definite Lord of the Flies element to the book, and as you can imagine, it’s unlikely to end well.
In short, Such Small Hands is a wonderful short novel, complex in its ambiguity despite its brevity.  Just as the girls struggle to come to terms with their emotions, the reader is never quite sure whose side they should be on, if anyone’s, right to the bitter end.  Portobello have been very successful with translated fiction in recent years, with Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days taking out the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian being awarded the Man Booker International Prize a couple of years back.  Short as it is, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Such Small Hands ended up in serious contention for next year’s MBIP – you heard it here first

Put simply: childhood is strange. Countless writers have tried to capture this strangeness, the landscape of novelty that is a child’s world. Such Small Hands, a slim and haunting novel by Andrés Barba, not only succeeds at this but does so in one hundred haunting pages. Each one of these pages is exquisite, and the end result is a perfectly expressed work that transmits the perverse and bizarre experience that is youth, where games signify life and death and where relationships are teased and pushed to the breaking point. Childhood: part fairy tale, part nightmare.
The novel opens in the midst of tragedy and the reader being told, at the same time as our young protagonist Marina: “Father died instantly, your mother is in a coma.” The family has been in a car accident and Marina, though seriously injured, has survived. Brief details of the accident flit in and out of Marina’s mind; before long her mother has also died and the aftermath is complete. Marina herself has been in recovery, and once she is ready to be released she is told she’ll be sent to an orphanage.
The book is told in three parts, and the second part shifts to a narrative spoken through the collective voice of the girls at the orphanage, who speculate what the newcomer will look like:
Some of us thought she’d be big, others said she’d be our size; some said she’d be very pretty, others didn’t think so. Her first triumph was this: we were no longer the same. We, who had been tamed, we, who made no distinctions among ourselves and our bodies, we, who all wanted the same things, were no longer all the same.
The collective voice isn’t just a stylistic choice, but crucial for the story since the group of girls are, in many ways, a single mass. Acting as a Greek chorus of sorts, they not only seem to sense the advancing change, even danger, that Marina will bring to their lives, but imbue it with a metaphysical weight that threatens to transform the lives they are fated to live out. Before Marina arrives this collective voice describes lunch at the orphanage: “It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese was all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us.”
The arrival of Marina is nearly as fraught as the return of Oedipus to Thebes or Agamemnon to Argos. Marina immediately stands out from the other orphaned girls in that she knew and still remembers her parents; she’d had a childhood of new dresses and toys and visits to Disneyland Paris and, most importantly, a family life. At first the girls bully Marina: “If the adult wasn’t watching, we hit her. Never very hard, usually just softly. She’d crouch to pick something up and we’d stab her butt with a sharp pencil. She’d flinch and we’d laugh.” Marina has the realization that she’s different and decides to stop eating, perhaps to feel in control or, perhaps, to control the other girls. This realization was like “carrying something haughty and cruel, like a flag. I’m different. Faith in that belief, even just for a moment, is all it takes for everything to change.” Marina’s fasting gives her the self-assurance needed to turn the tables; the girls are both intrigued and frightened by this strange archetypal phenomenon, by the new girl whose sense of quiet confidence is strange but irrefutable, a nature that quickly begins to impose its will upon them.
Throughout the novel the children appear as instinctive, sometimes frenzied animals on the verge of making some huge discovery about themselves. A trip to the zoo grants Barba the opportunity to draw subtle connections between these children and the beasts they observe. Amid the wolves and the peacocks Marina suddenly announces: “Tonight we’re going to play a game.” She says nothing more and the collective voice underscores how “the rest of the trip was tinged with the anxiety of the wait. The wait was essential.” Although Marina has become another animal, she still stands visibly separate from the pack and the allure and fascination she holds for the other girls is overpowering.
An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.
Few authors would equate a relationship between human beings to an arid desert, but the remainder of Barba’s tale bears out this unnerving metaphor.
For the game Marina has devised takes the novel into even darker territory. There is a strange dream-logic to Barba’s writing and the action of the novel begins to mimic the implacable forward-march of dreams. Marina’s game is very simple: once they’re left alone a single girl is chosen to be a doll and the rest of the girls undress her, apply makeup and dress her up again. Marina instructs all the other girls: “The doll has to be quiet; she’s not allowed to talk. And she has to be very pale and sweet and wear this dress. She’s like us, but in doll version; she can’t live without us.” Each night a different girl is chosen and the game proceeds. Here the collective voice grows increasingly claustrophobic and increasingly urgent as what happens to the doll-girl happens to all the girls. “Closing our eyes, we’d compel our bodies to produce the sleep-smell that convinced the adult it was okay for her to go.”
Barba’s earlier books in English translation, Rain over Madrid and August, October, evince the complicated distance between perception and reality, between how a character sees herself and how she is understood by those around her. Barba’s interest in the wordless transformations that occur in youth as well as the obsessions and fixations whose seeds are planted in life’s earliest stages are on full display in this novel. The reader can almost feel the children growing in both body and mind.
Like a puppet-master, or an idle Greek divinity, or even one of the three Fates, Marina is in control of everything; she chooses the child who will be the doll, simply says: you. The orphans come to play with the chosen child as if it were a doll, a smaller version of themselves. The perversity and logic of this ritual is impossible to ignore. “We’d start to undress the chosen girl, thinking trivial thoughts; that we never noticed that mole on her shoulder before, that her face leaned comically to one side, that her nightgown had Donald Duck on it and was frayed at the hem.”
Barba’s novel is a sharp, strange and highly authentic piece of fiction. There is not a superfluous word. In Lisa Dillman’s hands, Andrés Barba’s prose is nothing short of sublime; her renderings almost force the book’s readers to underline and read aloud passages by the dozen. In her translator's note, Dillman notes the power the book had over her when she’d first read it close to a decade ago, as well as her overwhelming desire to translate his singular story as a result. It is not hard to understand why: Barba writes his scenes in brief sketches, left for the reader to piece together like shards of pottery, revealing a motif in crisp outlines.
And this motif is one to take note of: childhood is indeed strange, but Barba’s prose imbues that stage of life with a menace rarely seen before. Playing with the chosen child, the chorus of orphans says: “And then we were discovering that her body was smaller than it had ever been. And with the smallness came fascination. Because anything small fits in our hand, and we can touch it, and move it, and guess what it’s for, and see how it works.” Barba’s readers would do well to take these lines to heart as they remember the haunting experience that is childhood. - Mark Haber

In the second section of 2666, Bolaño’s lit professor Amalfitano despairs that contemporary writers, rather than tackling “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” instead “choose the perfect exercises.” The joke of this assertion – if it’s funny or not depends on your mood and/or vantage – is two-fold: the first part being that Bolaño is having his very own character assert that 2666, the very novel you’re reading, is itself an example of a “great, imperfect, torrential work.”
Such Small Hands, by Spanish author Andrés Barba, is a slender book that falls into that other category: a tidily executed project, one with tremendous tonal intimacy and rhythmic language. (Given the lovely and propulsive and inward-turned prose, it’s clear that translator Lisa Dillman has done a masterful job.) The basic story of Such Small Hands is simultaneously unique and familiar in its echo of fairy tale tropes: a girl’s parents die. She goes to live in an orphanage. Things get weird. Then they end.
In the first section, we follow the young girl, Marina, as she experiences the after-trauma of the car accident in which she is violently scarred and her parents are killed: Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital, is the novel’s opening sentence, a sentence that functions as our refrain throughout the first section. Barba writes Marina’s slow recovery – of body, of mind, of language – in a hushed and distant third-person, creating a sort of trance state as he focuses on mood and rhythm of language more than the mundane process of recovery: “Over those two months of convalescence, Marina sank into [the doctor’s] looks the way you sink into a tub.”
Near the end of the first section, Marina is given a doll to help with her therapy: “Dolly repeated over and over, dolly always waiting to lift her arms and be picked up, and the past shrinking, the loneliness shrinking.” It’s this doll that she takes into the second section, to her new life in an orphanage. Here the novel opens up, if slightly: sections alternate between Marina’s point of view (written in that same distant third) and, quite effectively, a collective retrospective first-person told from the point of view of the girls in the orphanage. Alongside Marina’s still-fractured mental state, a new tension is introduced: the girls’ upset at Marina’s disruption of their prior seemingly idyllic state: “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.”
While the tensions that ensue are keenly captured, unsettling, and even awful, they’re inflicted upon us – and Marina, and the doll, and the girls, and one unfortunate caterpillar – in an almost context-free fugue state. We aren’t ever sure how to access Marina (more below), and nothing is told to us of how life was for the girls at the orphanage before Marina’s arrival. The implied idyllic state seems unlikely, and so this reads as if Barba has chosen to be faithful to the tidiness of his project rather than try to understand the more complex realities of orphanage life. To Barba, the point is Marina-as-disruption: the fact that and the manner in which Marina – through her scarredness (in the shower the girls gaze, rapt, at her wound), her worldliness (she has seen movies they’ve never heard of), her love for her doll (the girls dismember it), and her strange behaviors (she stabs a caterpillar) – disrupts their collective sense of self is all that matters.
The distance and lack of definition with which Marina is presented keeps her at arm’s length from the reader (and, too, the girls): she is a strange girl gone through strange things, and, like the girls, we watch her without empathy. That the girls are allowed voice means that we feel, more than anything, how deeply disturbed they are by Marina – but as we’ve known Marina longer, she doesn’t disturb us so much as seem like a wounded animal, wandering strangely through her shattered existence. In some ways this is one of the novel’s strengths: the well-captured collective ambivalence of the girls being perplexed by, envious of, and hateful toward a different other plopped into their harmonious collective existence. (One wonders if the novel might allow the reader a clearer situatedness if the Marina-centric sections were removed, if we shared only the girls’ vantage.)
One of the jacket blurbs compares Such Small Hands to The Virgin Suicides; this is misleading. While Such Small Hands does have a collective We unsettled by an Other, this group of orphaned girls is no stand-in for society, and the Other is not a representation of what happens when society begins to decay. In Eugenides’s novel, the boys are clearly haunted by the Lisbon girls, and the past tense is crucial to his tale; here, the orphaned girls are looking back at their short time with Marina without any clear self-criticism or self-awareness, and the impact and meaning of these events – either to us or to the characters (save Marina) – are ultimately hard to pin down. I’m not sure that this is a criticism; Barba has intentionally chosen not to hold the readers’ hand and reassure us that yes, the way we feel toward the book – toward Marina, toward the girls – is how we’re supposed to feel. Still, one might wish that we were clearly meant to feel more unsettled than uncertain.
The final section becomes literary: Marina, hated by the girls by day, takes power over them at night as she invents a game one of the girls (chosen by Marina) is dressed up and treated like a doll until morning. The chosen girl can’t resist, can’t speak, can’t be willful. This part of the novel speeds toward its conclusion, and the collective nature of the orphanage girls – they are never individualized – limits Barba to summary.
Ultimately, it’s the doll that defines Barba’s project. Dollness is referenced in the title. It is Marina’s therapy. The girls are transfixed by the doll until they destroy it, yet the doll rises again in Marina’s strange game, only to be destroyed once more. The use of the doll is more literary device than representation of reality; it is intricately psychological, symbolic, allusive . . . and not of the real world. And so with Such Small Hands: beautiful very much in the manner of a Sally Mann self-portrait: precise in its plotting and intention, thick with mood and gloom, with a quietly dreadful bizarreness. It’s disarming and strange and wonderfully awful – and constructed very skillfully. And as with Mann’s work, it feels constructed, more a carefully arranged system-in-a-novel than that imperfect torrent. This is not meant as a criticism, either: the second joke about Amalfitano’s assertion is that Bolaño’s non-2666 projects are tidy compositions, works less life-like than doll-like. Tidiness doesn’t diminish their excellence any more than it diminishes just how very impressive Such Small Hands is, along with the particular and quite apparent talent of Andrés Barba. - Sean Bernard
Near the end of Peter Weir’s masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock, the young girl Irma, who has been missing for a few weeks, returns to Appleyard, an all-girl school in Victorian Australia, to say her farewells. She enters the room where her former classmates, dressed in white, are performing some exercises at some hanging beams. Irma stands in red between the beams, smiling. Her classmates, though, cannot bear to let her go quite so easily. They’ve been at Appleyard, “innocent,” while Irma was up to who knows what, and they must know. It’s suddenly an outright assault, as they demand to know what happened! This desire for forbidden knowledge, the jealousy, attraction, and hatred toward one who seems to know, is conveyed with all of its horror in that brief scene. In his novella Such Small Hands, Spanish author Andrés Barba extends the scene and modulates it all with tiny voices and gruesome games.
Marina is a young girl whose parents recently died in a car accident she was fortunate enough to survive. “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital,” she repeats over an over again, this seeming to be one of the only phrases to gain any traction in her shocked mind. Now orphaned, Marina is sent to live at an orphanage with many other young girls, many of whom have never really known of a world outside.
Barba transitions from Marina’s voice, to the first-person plural of the group of girls, and back, throughout the novella, showing us how disconnected Marina is, how she longs for connection, and how much the group of girls longs for her experience. This can be a dangerous combination.
As the weeks go by, Marina remains on the inside of her own life, the other girls outside looking in, or trying to. And we’ve all seen this before. We’ve all been through this, as children, as adults watching children. The group is predatory. As much as they long to connect to this girl, to have what she has, there is a desire to annihilate her, as they themselves feel reduced in her presence.
But in Such Small Hands, Barba has Marina exert control with a strange game that embodies the desire, the undeveloped sexuality, the secrets, and the violence. The group of girls has no defense:
The room was still dark but we could hear her voice, boundless as the horizon. We know now, that we were brave that night, but we didn’t know then. We know now, too, that we didn’t have to go to her, didn’t have to get out of our beds, didn’t have to feel the cold of the floor tiles, that it would have been easy to take her violence and her magnetism in our hand and crush it. And yet we went.
This strange nightly ritual continues:
Closing our eyes, we’d compel our bodies to produce the sleep-smell that convinced the adult it was okay for her to go. And we’d lie there like that, motionless, for several minutes. Then, in the dark of night, a strange sound would send the first sign. We’d billow, like skirts in the wind. We’d start to live inside the game, the anxiety of the game. Soon the second sign would come; there would be no doubt now. It could be anything: a whistle, the sound of creaking wood, even silence. And then slowly, we’d get out of bed, without even brushing up against each other, and our bodies would feel lighter. Not even then would we feel the cold of the floor tiles, be afraid of the dark. We were the cold, the dark. And so we’d go to Marina’s bed, sleepwalkers, obsessed with one idea: starting the game.
It’s a troubling book, one I had to read twice to really fall into. My first read, I felt I was mostly skipping along on the surface, seeing a few passages that promised depths. My second, though, knowing where it was going, I was able to plunge into those depths. It was strangely invigorating and troubling. Something I recommend. -

Here we have Another of the writers that were on the Granta list of the best 22 Spanish writers. Andres Barba has had another book translated into English. This is the first book by him, I have read. He has written ten novels.He has a number of prizes for his books. He also works as a translator doing the works of Joesph Conrad and Alice in Wonderland being among them.
One day she said , “We have the same name: Marina.”
And what if , like her , Marina started to have fewer memories, hardly any memories,no mermories at all ?
“we have the same name ”
Because dolly was the only one who didn’t lie . She was the only  one calm, as if halfway through a long life. and she looked different from everyone else, Time passed over her, and she remained ever alert, like a visionary, astonished, lashless eyes(broken; now even when you laid her down, they wouldn’t lose)
The doll is the only one she trusted as others lied.
This is a very short novella clocking in at just 86 pages. It only arrived today and I took it with me when I went with Amanda to an appointment and read it whilst she was with the doctor in about an hour. It is the tale of Marina an orphan that has lost her mum and dad in a car crash,  or as she keeps putting it .””My father died instantly and my mother in Hospital. The book opens as she is pulled from the crash. Awaking with a scar on her tum. Also, a number people talking to her trying to get her to open up. One way is to give her a doll. The doll she also gives the name Marina. She is then passed fit to leave the hospital and travel to the Orphanage.This is where the story moves into two narratives her the first Marina,  then a collective voice of the fellow Orphans,  as they greet Marina. The orphanage is a strange world to her all them in bright dresses and the same black shoes. The Orphans aren’t kind to her and we see Marina through their eyes as well as hers in a frightening look at being young and lost in a world of fellow lost souls.Also, the violent and horrific way kids can treat each other.
When class was over we liked to play. We’d sing as the jump rope hit the sand with a dull crack. To get in the circle you had to pay attention, had to calculate the jump rope’s arc, its speed, adapt your rhythm to the chorus. Once you were in you felt exposed, tense, as if each time the rope cracked down, it hit your mouth, or your stomach. with each thump you went around the world.
There is a brutal nature to this play rather like in Lord of the flies which this part remind me of
Another of the current crop of books, I have read from Spanish in recent years.  That has a creepy surreal edge to the narrative two that spring to mind is The children and fever dream. Which both feature children and like this walk a line between real and surrealness. The Orphanage is where this story starts to turn a strange way.  Although the way MArina talks at the time has a vacant feel about it as though her heart has been ripped out of her. The black and whiteness of the statement about her parents hang in the air when she says it. This in Lit terms is an Amuse Buche of a book. A book that sets you as a reader minds racing far beyond it mere 86 pages. Also have to say the cover is rather creepy to this book as well. -

Rarely does a book come that only captures perceptual reality with such vigorous insight but also gives it a terrifying spin. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andres Barba, does just that. Translated lucidly by Lisa Dillman, the story is simple with echoes of folklore. Marina is the sole survivor of an accident that instantly kills her father and later on, her mother at the hospital.She has rote-learned these lines and recites them in flat affect. It shrewdly depicts how effortlessly children learn to put on a facade in front of adults. Marina mimics speaking in the monotone that she has seen adults use around her, which is devoid of any sort of depth or emotion.
Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. 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.
Her psychologist gives her a life like doll as a companion after her release from the hospital which she also names Marina. She is placed in an orphanage where the tragedy that she has gone through marks her as an outsider in the eyes of the other girls who view her with curiosity and suspicion. They are wary of her and have trouble understanding her. She has externalised all her sorrow in her adoration of the doll which unsettles the girls who live a regimented life in the orphanage and  feed off each others loneliness. Marina is self-contained and does not need anyone else than her doll which infuriates the girls. It agitates and riles them that she is so far beyond their reach.
Marina is clearly grieving but is at that age where she has not yet found the vocabulary to express it which makes her desolation all the more raw. The fluid prose dismantles the well formed conventions of grief, focusing instead in giving delirious form to the chaotic mass of emotion Marina carries around with her.  She is not yet equipped to give edges and angles to her emotions so fittingly, her experiences are related in a hallucinatory manner. She is at the precarious stage between denial and realisation where she has an inkling of the loss that she has experienced but has still not fully grasped the crushing finality of death. She is yet to be hit by that overpowering realisation and until then, she is walking around in a haze, all the while aware of the looming truth in her periphery.
The writing is so intricate and metaphorical which gives the sparse narration an ominous undertone.
It viscerally evokes the loneliness and emotional detachment of kids at an orphanage. The girls in this story are starving for attention. Marina, with her doll as her constant companion and her grief as a black cloud over her, fascinates them. The girls form a single unit in the narrative and are narrated in a Greek chorus style. This serves to prove two functions in the story. It establishes Marina as  the outsider who is viewed with animosity and at times, vague interest. It also demonstrates the dynamics between the orphanage girls and Marina. They often gang up on her even though Marina’s obliviousness makes them envious.
They are in such awe of Marina and her peculiar ways that when she suggests that they play an absurd ‘living doll’ game, they readily agree. They are yearning to be adored so much so that they happily surrender to becoming dolls, trading off their humanness to turn into a lifeless, inanimate object of affection. It bleakly shows what the depravity of love and affection can do to children and their vulnerable psyche. This innocuous game has appalling consequences for Marina, which is made creepier by the fact that the incident is inspired by real events.
The eerie horror in this book is magnified by the girls’ naivety. Their malevolent acts are without any motives and driven purely by their instincts. They are not yet aware of metacognition which adds an ambiguous dimension to the story. Such Small Hands is a slim sinister novella  but packs a lot more ferocious intensity than books double its size. Twisted and unnerving, it gives a psychologically acute peek into the minds of little girls. - Rabeea Saleem

In Such Small Hands (108 pages, Transit Books), the new novel by acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman), childhood abandonment and trauma are examined through the abnormal, ritualistic behaviors of Marina, a seven-year-old girl turned orphan. Following the unexpected deaths of her parents, Marina loses any control she once had over language and emotion. Placed in an entirely unfamiliar world, filled with cartoonish, seemingly identical little girls, Marina grapples with her black-sheep identity as she confronts complicated, and at times, horrific decisions that eventually lead to drastic consequences.
Loosely based on a brutal event that took place in 1960s Brazil, Barba’s twelfth book creates a narrative similar to other bildungsroman such as Oliver Twist and even Pan’s Labyrinth, maintaining a lyrically rich and devastating portrayal of adolescent struggle. Caught between the bookends of trauma, Marina finds herself in limbo as she fails to both perform and to cope with her emotions effectively.
Switching between a collective first person, gang-like perspective of the orphans and a third-person perspective for Marina, a deep sense of longing and tension is formed between the two voices. Despite hopes of finding friendship with her comrades, Marina and her peculiar behavior create a barrier of jealousy and anger that poisons the entire orphanage and ultimately leads to violence.
Meditating on desire and loneliness in an otherwise cold and de-sexualized world, Barba compares Marina to an imprisoned zoo animal. “Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to. An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.” Lingering every so often on ideas of physical touch and the young prepubescent body, the novel amplifies the importance of human contact in both a sweet and startling way.
Such Small Hands evokes a sensation similar to the horror of witnessing a child being dragged beneath a riptide. You want to help, scream, bury your face in your hands, but you also can’t fail to notice the poignant valor of an innocent life gasping for air, struggling against forces seemingly greater than us all. -

Some of us thought she’s be big, others said she’s be our size; some said she’d be very pretty others didn’t think so. Her first triumph was this: we were no longer all the same.
At the beginning of the year I set myself some goals and one of them was to try and read more translated fiction. Which I can say I have been successful with this in the fact I have read more translated fiction this year so far than any other year previously. I would like to thank Natalie at Granta Books for being so kind and sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba was originally written in Spanish but has recently been translated into English by Lisa Dillman and will be published by Portobello Books on the 3rd August, 2017 (Today). The story centres on (official blurb): “Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital. She has learned to say this flatly and without emotion, the way she says her name (Marina), her doll’s name (Marina) and her age (Seven). Her parents were killed in a car crash and now she lived in the orphanage with the other little girl. But Marina is not like the other little girls. In the curious, hyperreal, feverishly serious world of childhood, Marina and the girls play games of desire and warfare. The daily rituals of playtime, lunchtime and bedtime and charged with a horror; horror is licked by the dark flames of love. When Marina introduces the girls to Marina the doll, she sets in moion a chain of events from which there can be no release.”
The first thing I would like to say about this novella is the fact it is beautifully written in a kind of a hypnotic way however, I just did not connect with this book in anyway. Such Small Hands has a very vast array of characters especially when it comes to little girls. Each one of the characters within this novella has quite an eerie and unsure aspect to them. Every character that you encounter within this book  leaves you with a haunting feeling that you can never really get to grips with.
Such Small Hands has many different themes running throughout however, three themes in particular run continually throughout this book and they are: death, childhood and creepiness. This novella is a very focused and precise read with a feeling of eeriness very present throughout the whole book.
I read this book back in June and I still don’t really know how I feel about it.
But of that violence was born a dark, gurgling pleasure, the supple feeling of having won, or being on the verge of winning.
Overall, Such Small Hands is a very dark and psychological reality and eventhough I personally did not connect with this story I would still recommend it to readers who like creepy, dark, strange and haunting kind of books. -

Flannery O’Connor once said that any writer who’s survived childhood has enough material to last a lifetime. True enough, and in Spanish author Andrés Barba’s “Such Small Hands,” Barba’s particular feat is to have dramatized the minds of children still barely capable of articulating what they feel.
The first title released by Transit Books, a nonprofit publisher based in Oakland, this short, eerie novel inhabits the minds of small children, all girls, living in an orphanage. They’ve been orphaned as long as they can remember, so that the sole home they’ve known is with one another, along with a guardian they call “the adult.” “It was once a happy city,” they explain, and they were “happy girls,” their experiences limited to the orphanage garden, dresses, beds, jump-rope games, occasional one-day field trips and a fig tree they’ve termed “the castle.”
Into this prelapsarian innocence comes a stranger, 7-year-old Marina, whose parents have just died in a car accident. Her arrival upends the girls’ microcosm, her relative worldliness showing them how much they’ve lacked. Their confusion begins with their bodies: Marina was injured in the accident, sliced open to her ribs. She recovered, but she is visibly scarred. When they see her in the shower, the other children realize for the first time that they’re different from her, and that each girl is an individual: “we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed.” (The narrative point of view switches between that choral “we” and a “she” reserved for Marina, which further highlights the experiential divide.) The newcomer has watched movies they haven’t watched, played games they haven’t learned; worse yet, she’s been to Disneyland, in Paris. She tells them she took a picture with Mickey Mouse, rode roller coasters, and saw a castle — a real one, the envious children think, because “it’s right there and it has doors and windows you can touch.”
Of course, the amusement-park edifice is not a real castle, but just a place for invented characters vivified by costumed humans, and part of the power of “Such Small Hands” comes from the girls’ faith in play-acting, a belief suitable to young characters so isolated that longing exceeds knowledge. To express their discontent, the girls ostracize, poke and hit Marina, but it’s when they steal and dismember Marina’s doll that they’re being especially hateful. For one thing, the doll comes from outside the orphanage walls; it’s from Marina’s previous life, which excludes them. It also lets Marina elude the rest of the group: “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.” -  R.O. Kwon

Children can be so cruel. Easy when there's no perception of consequence. Perhaps that’s why they're a tool horror uses to tap into primal fears: we lament our own loss of innocence or shun those uncivilised things we once were. To cut through the psychology, kids are creepy little bastards.
Exhibit A: Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands, where he takes us through the looking glass into a consciousness bordering on psychosis, or the mindset of a child. There are hints of Something Wicked this Way Comes in the blend of fantasy and terror that forms this worldview, but Barba’s tale is inspired by truth – a horrific incident in 1960s Brazil where a girl was killed by others at an orphanage, who then played with her body parts for a week. 
Thankfully, Barba plots a more psychological course in his fairly bloodless Gothic horror. Seven-year-old Marina is sent to a girls home after a fatal accident leaves her parentless. While her comfortable background distances her from the other girls, they obsess after her dangerously. She is god, monster and sacrifice.
It's a novella about many things, among them trauma, loss and longing, but most of all about simply being a child. Lisa Dillman fluidly translates impeccable literary technique, most notable when the girls – without parents to draw the lines within which their lives should be lived – speak in their anonymous first person plural, a sinister Greek chorus. They are legion. - Alan Bett
When I talk about my new-found love of short, sharp novels, I’m talking about books like Signs Preceding the End of the World and Mildew and The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Fever Dream (those are just some of the Spanish-language ones) – books that are dense enough to blossom into their own reality, and short enough that they reach a peak of intensity.
Now here’s another one. Andrés Barba is a Spanish writer who was named among Granta’s Best Young Spanish-language Novelists back in 2010. Such Small Hands is not his first novel to be translated into English (a number of others have been published by Madrid-based Hispabooks), but it is his first from a UK-based publisher (namely, Portobello Books). It is a novel of childhood, secrets and identity – and it’s very creepy indeed (the cover image above captures perfectly the mood of the book).  But it begins with the building-blocks: words.
Marina is seven when she’s in a car crash with her parents. Her memories of the event are abstract: sounds, speed, a sensation of thirst. She has learned to say, “My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital, but not necessarily with a real understanding of what those words mean:
Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. 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.(translation by Lisa Dillman) 
Marina has not yet formed for herself the language to describe what happened to her, so she ends up learning phrases by rote. There’s a gap between what she says, what she understands, and what she has experienced. It doesn’t stop there: Marina is told she will be sent to an orphanage, but has no way to conceive of what this might be. In the face of everything, Marina turns to the doll given to her by her psychologist. She gives the doll her own name, invests it with personality; it’s just about the only thing that feels real to Marina at this time.
When Marina has arrived at the orphanage, Barba’s narration switches to a disconcerting chorus, representing all the other girls. Until now, they have viewed themselves as being all the same – part of the same whole, even. Seeing Marina’s scar from her injuries introduces a difference, and sets off a cascade of realisation among the girls:
We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.
Following this, the chapters’ viewpoint alternates between Marina and the girls, each adding (or perhaps peeling back) another layer of the complex game of growing up together. The other girls are by turns fascinated and repelled by Marina, and they treat her accordingly. Marina herself realises that she is different, and tries in various ways to take ownership of that. Underlying these events is the ever-shifting logic of childhood, something captured in the fluid nature of Lisa Dillman’s translation. There’s an extraordinary sequence which weaves together an interview between Marina and the orphanage psychologist about the car accident, and an instance where Marina uses a stick to skewer a caterpillar in the playground, as the other girls gather around. This passage dissolves the boundaries of time and reality: disorienting for the reader, perfectly intuitive to Marina.
One night, Marina proposes a game to the other girls: they will take turns to dress up as a doll, in clothes and make-up that Marina has obtained; the doll will then remain quiet while the girls play with her. The girls’ chorus describes what this is like:
You are passed from one set of hands to the next, from one bed to the next. You’re never alone again. Safe inside the doll, you love harder, feel deeper, exist boundlessly, no moderation. And yet you disregard the sound of girls kissing your cheek. Nothing matters now.  The doll game allows each girl to experience individuality to a greater degree than she has before – albeit paradoxically by suppressing any thoughts or personality she might have of her own. It’s a deeply private experience that can only be articulated generically, and in that sense perhaps analogous to Maria’s experience of the car crash.
Marina herself cannot understand why the girls continue to bully her during the day when they’ll happily submit to her game at night. It’s another example of that fluid logic underpinning events… but let’s leave that there. The experience of reading Such Small Hands becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the book’s pieces fall into place. This is a novel that will continue to haunt me for some time; and, of course, I’ll be reading more of Barba’s work in the future. -

I had forgotten that it was Spanish Literature Month, but just in time a new arrival has allowed me to take part. This novella, by young Spanish author Barba (right), is  published on Aug 3. He is one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish novelists, and has written twelve novels already.
Such Small Hands is a profoundly unsettling novella in a Daphne DuM or Shirley Jackson sort of way. At 96 pages, it has to be read in one sitting and disturbs even before you open the front cover, with that waxy pink doll looking at you!
Such Small Hands is the story of a seven-year-old girl called Marina who is orphaned when her parents die in a car accident; she too was badly injured. On the first page she learns how to describe her situation:
“My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.”
During her rehabilitation in the hospital, she is given a doll which she calls Marina too. Her only possession, Marina the doll becomes her alter ego, and Marina channels everything into the doll, while outwardly remaining emotionless.
When Marina arrives at the orphanage, she and her doll are objects of immense interest to the other girls, upsetting their established hierarchy and taking attention from them. They respond by excluding her from their skipping games, bullying her whenever they can. Marina seems mostly unperturbed, playing with her doll, which is perplexing to the other girls – who would after all rather love her than hate her. She gets her own back at night; she wanders the dorm when they’re all asleep.
She’d slip out of bed felling the cold floor tiles beneath her feet and creep over to one o them. She’d get so close her lips would brush against her. She’d think, “If she woke up now she’d see me,” and that thought frightened her. She’d rest her head very carefully on the pillow, inhaling the girl’s breath.
Just like pain. Exactly like pain.
Then one night the other girls steal Marina’s doll.
“Give her back, give me my doll back,” she said.
So we gave her a leg. We broke it off.
Halfway through the story, this is the turning point. Marina comes up with a plan to control all the girls – one by one.  From this point, there is a creeping inevitability to the story’s conclusion, it’s a matter of how and when, but the climax is really quite shocking.
All the way through, the voices telling the story are the girls. However, Marina excepted, it is rare that a single voice of one of the others breaks into the text. Instead, they act as a Greek chorus – talking as ‘we’, which really builds the tension in the story. It becomes Marina versus a kind of hive mind.
As a portrait of the moods of childhood, the need for love and the hurt when it is refused, unthinking exclusion and unwanted interfering, low grade bullying, Barbas really nails it in this small community of young girls. Then he takes it up a level and shows us the horror of what happens when it’s taken to extremes, all cleverly executed out of sight of the adults who haven’t a clue what’s going on.
With the girls’ chorus and Marina’s internalisation, there is a dreamlike quality to the text, although it is only dreamlike in so far as nightmares always lurking nearby. Translator, Lisa Dillman has, I discover, translated several other novels by Barba and I am now very keen indeed to read more by this brilliant combo of author and translator. An afterword by American author Edmund White, explores some of the themes and the inspiration behind the story and makes for a fitting end to this little book. Highly recommended. (9/10) - AnnaBookBel

This brilliantly realised and sustained Spanish tale may have been inspired by actual events, specifically the grotesque murder in a Brazilian orphanage of a young girl by her peers. What is beyond doubt, however, is its ability to creep deep beneath the skin.
Marina is seven when her parents are killed in a car crash. Sent to an orphanage, her presence arouses fascination, hostility and tenderness among the occupants, who narrate sections of the novel Greek-chorus style.
She is dwarfed by emotions she lacks the language to express, but what she does possess is a formidable power to bend the other girls to her will.
As fantasy seeps chillingly into reality, Barba repeatedly creates images that have the authentic strangeness of childhood imaginings: the gill-like mouths of sleeping children; the ancient, mask-like faces of caterpillars.
It is an eerie, uncanny world, but then, as the novelist Edmund White observes in a glowing afterword: ‘If we could suddenly enter the consciousness of a child, we would understand nothing.’
- Sephanie Cross

Andrés Barba on Such Small Hands   

Andrés Barba, August, October, Trans. by Lisa Dillman, Hispabooks, 2015.                      

Fourteen-year-old Tomás goes with his well-off family on their usual seaside summer holiday, but he is at a stage in his life when nothing is the same. Sullenly detached from them, full of confused intimations of sexuality, he is also faced with death when his widowed aunt, who lives in the resort, is taken seriously ill. As he becomes close to her on her deathbed he frequents the forbidden in the form of some lower-class village kids—casually transgressive boys and even more alien, sexually knowing girls—that will get him involved on the last day in a gang rape of a vulnerable girl. Though when it is his turn, Tomás only pretends to do it—enough to save face with the boys. Back in Madrid, he wrestles with guilt and confusion. He finally decides to go back secretly, alone, to find the girl and apologize for what happened, but despite the moving scene of atonement and forgiveness, ambiguity lurks even in this redemption.

"Andrés Barba needs no introduction. He has his own intentional world perfectly contained and a literary gift that belies his age." —Mario Vargas Llosa

"A story that has been described as an explosive clash between Pavese's The Beautiful Summer and the adolescents of Gus van Sant's Elephant."—Daniel Entrialgo

"A new Spanish great, that’s all I need to say." —Lire

Andrés Barba’s August, October starts off full of charm: a teenage boy from Madrid ditches his family and the beach club to hang out with the local kids in a seaside town. Slowly the atmosphere darkens as he tries to adopt their code of violence. Although Barba has translated Melville, Conrad, and Defoe into Spanish, the writer whose ghost haunts August, October unmistakably is Harold Brodkey, with his deep interest in adolescent sexuality and his ability to conjure the last frontiers of childhood. Like Brodkey, Barba inhabits his young hero with a clarity that is both sympathetic and unflinching. —Lorin Stein

Fourteen-year-old Tomás’ life changes forever while on a beach vacation with his family in award-winning Spanish writer Barba's (Rain Over Madrid, 2014, etc.) newly translated novel.
This is a coming-of-age story, of sorts; Tomás finds himself estranged from his own rapidly changing body and from his family. Riddled with teen angst, he spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the novel feeling disillusioned with his parents, who, from his perspective, are “no longer bathed in the benevolent glow of childhood, no longer superior beings; they, too, had been strangely degraded somehow.” Tomás’ inner turmoil is familiar, certainly, but none of it makes him especially sympathetic—in fact, his perpetual bad attitude makes us long for him to just grow up already. Fortunately, our frustration is eventually offset by the relationship Tomás forms with four local boys from the poor part of town, or “forbidden territory.” The boys introduce Tomás to a world of casual sex that he finds simultaneously enticing and bizarrely repulsive. His struggle to balance his desire and revulsion—especially where one of the local girls is concerned—gives the novel a much-needed menacing edge that propels the story forward. Finally, on the night after Tomás’ aunt’s funeral, his new friends draw him into a whirl of drinking, drugs, and an act of unspeakable violence. The second part of the novel deals with the emotional aftermath of that night, as Tomás further isolates himself, keeping the events a secret, while his family grieves for his aunt. It's shorter than the first part and comparatively lighter. Tomás ultimately seeks redemption and finds it perhaps a little too quickly. We are left with the sense that, yes, bad things happen, but in the end, all is forgiven and life goes on.
This is a coming-of-age novel that can be captivating and possesses many strengths but an equal—perhaps greater—number of weaknesses.  - Kirkus Reviews

Andrés Barba (Madrid, 1975) was last year chosen as one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists’. He has distinguished himself across the literary field, with six novels (Katia’s Sister, 2001, has been filmed; Versions of Teresa won the Torrente Ballester prize 2006), short stories, and essays (The Ceremony of Porn won the Anagrama Essay Prize in 2007). His works have been translated into nine languages and so far, a couple of stories have made it into English.
Fourteen-year-old Tomás goes with his well-off family on their usual seaside summer holiday, but he is at a stage in his life when nothing is the same. Sullenly detached from his family, full of confused intimations of sexuality, he is also faced with death when his widowed aunt, who lives in the resort, is taken seriously ill. The double thread of sex and death cross in his obscure search for meaning, as he frequents the forbidden in the form of some lower-class village kids: casually transgressive boys and even more alien, sexually knowing girls; meanwhile he becomes close to his delirious aunt on her deathbed.
The climax comes when on the last day, he finds himself participating in a gang rape of a retarded girl who is like a mascot for the town kids. When it is his turn, he only pretends to do it, enough to save face with the boys.
In the second, shorter section, Tomás, back in Madrid, wrestles with guilt and confusion until he takes some money and his aunt’s keys, and goes back secretly, alone, to find the girl. Their day at her school fete is on the face of it a moving scene of atonement and forgiveness. However, ambiguity lurks even in this redemption: Tomás plays a loving older brother, and yet it is not quite like that for the young girl.
Andrés Barba’s crafted, sensual prose gives us this dark story from within Tomás’s groping feelings and thoughts, though it is not a first-person account. A powerful mixture of delicacy and violence, realism and interiority, characterizes the writer’s style, with echoes of bildungsroman classics from André Gide and Thomas Mann to Edmund White. The psychological complexities avoid triteness because they are always concrete, conveyed through perception and sensation. Barba is an artist who rehabilitates the personal, and whose themes of youth and age, vulnerability and stoicism, cruelty and candour, cause this very adult novel about adolescence to resonate hauntingly in the mind. - Lorna Scott

Tomás is 14 and beginning to feel a bit disgruntled inside his skin. He has finally noticed that his parents are far more stupid than he had previously suspected. They even look a bit funny when they are asleep. Their faces become puffy; they resemble “a couple of puppets worse for wear”. He knows; he has been spying on them.

He is on vacation with them and his little sister Anita in the usual seaside place, far from Madrid and in one of the many holiday homes they have rented over the years.

“They spent the first few days enjoying the house with almost angst-ridden delight. Deep down they were a childish family. Just as some families were melancholy, or happy, or destructive, theirs was a childish family. They got over excited at the drop of a hat, then grew sad for no reason.”
Andrés Barba is one of several impressive writers from Spain at work on fiction that brilliantly dissects the business of being alive. He brings an unusually metaphysical intelligence which is exact and whimsical, undercut by a refined, humane tenderness. It is a quality he shares with his countrymen Álvaro Colomer, Adolfo Garcí Ortega and JA González Sainz – who are all, incidentally, published by Hispa in Madrid. The humour in August, October is far more painful, unlike the exasperated comedy of Colomer. Barba is capable of articulating intense states of mind with the surreal clarity more usually experienced in dreams.
This profound short novel – first published in Spain in 2010 – before his outstanding quartet of novellas, Rain Over Madrid, all of which were also sensitively translated by the US-based Lisa Dillman, belongs to the great coming-of-age stories. It seems simple and communal, almost matter-of-fact and devastatingly convincing.
Read it once at a gulp and then return to it. It possesses disarming genius and complex layers of truth, heightened by glimpses of understanding accompanied by near panic. Tomás has begun to drift between boyhood and the adult world. He taunts his mortality by a strange act of wilfulness while swimming which almost ends in disaster. The sensations throughout the narrative, both psychological and physical, are real and this is a story which delivers a palpable physical punch similar to that of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (1993).
The one element of Tomás’s life, until this summer of shocking revelations, is his solemn sister. Anita is the one presence which binds Tomás to his real self, the kinder one tested by the need to assert his new personality in a world turned harsh. His emerging maturity is making him more critical, not only of his parents but of the city children he used to play with. “They were boys and girls from good families . . . and they behave like mini-emperors, a plague of 14-year-old serpents, green and shiny, taking over the small beach town every summer.”
His former playmates now repel him: “He’s begun to experience a strange feeling of contempt for them.” With Anita it is very different. Barba conveys the sibling bond with understated beauty: “He and Anita were close, the two of them formed their own private community. He would turn to her and suddenly become aware of her admiration – a gaze so steady he got the feeling that his face was being engulfed by hers . . and when they walked from the house to the beach, he’d slip her his hand, pretending to have done it unawares.”
The characterisation of the sister is extraordinarily astute: “Anita was an unusual little girl. Sometimes she seemed cold, as though she’d learned from the time she was a baby to absorb things without touching them at all, to go unnoticed, moving from place to place on her tiny little legs.”
Few writers have come closer to depicting the vividly secret inner world of a child. Anita’s empathy is unsettling. “She seemed very different, moved to an almost insufferable degree by other people’s pain, and that was when she walked the way she was walking now, as though dragging something behind her, something heavy and dense.”
The shocking burden is the illness of Aunt Eli, their father’s widowed sister, who appears to have entered a fatalistic mental state. Quite by random Eli mentions the Eiffel Tower and that she doesn’t want to die without seeing it. When her melodramatic statement is countered, she remains unperturbed: “You don’t know that, maybe I will die tomorrow . . . I’ve never travelled anywhere in my whole life.”
Tomás is moving at a rapid pace. The restlessness which has begun to control him drives him out to the estuary “because the estuary was where you weren’t supposed to go”. He wanders on, recalling his aunt referring to a man who had “turned up dead there’’. It is a wonderful phrase; Barba – and his translator – are alert to the unconscious ways in which ordinary speech frequently includes the incorrect. Tomás “didn’t know what he was hoping to find, he was trying to translate it into words, but he’d always been better at feeling than thinking”.
When he happens upon a group of four local boys, his first impulse is to threaten them with a rock. A brief display of bravado follows. The only way these relate to the world and to each other is by sexualised goading. “They couldn’t have been more than 14, and yet they were older than him, as old as fossil fish, as survival, as torture or neglect. They’d become realists. Their sexuality was clearly developed and that seemed to have created mysterious bonds among them . . . like wolves . . . hunting in a pack.”
Forming a wary alliance of sorts with them, Tomás joins the gang. The illness and sudden death of his aunt sustains some level of distance for Tomás from the boys. His final initiation into their society of violence and abuse involves an outrageous act of violation which, although he does not fully participate, preys on his mind. Back in Madrid he becomes ill. Again Anita steals the show as she keeps vigil by his bed, “sitting on the floor with a handkerchief tied over her mouth like a miniature bank robber”.
The closing quest sequence in which he runs away from his home in Madrid to return to the resort town completes an act of atonement. He imagines arriving at a doorway, “his hair ridiculously combed, smiling, holding out a bouquet of flowers . . . offering them to a girl who, in all likelihood, would run away if she saw him”.
At the close of the book he is standing at a bus station with a girl whose face is “so huge, so full of life, round as a pie” and simple goodness imbues the story with a grandeur rarely achieved. Think of the hyped formulaic fiction being churned out on conveyer belts by busy famous writers with international reputations and shrug. August, October is beyond impressive, it is the real thing, a study of how the mind and memory attempts to make sense of emotion and guilt; need and regret. -
Eileen Battersby

Andrés Barba’s fiction is a zone of transformation. In Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, Barba’s story, “The Coming Flood,” follows a prostitute obsessed with grafting a horn to her head. An excerpt from Barba’s Las manos pequeñas, appearing in Words Without Borders, portrays a group of orphan girls who ritualistically dress and treat one of their friends like a doll. Both works reinforce the mutability of personhood, albeit through extreme cases. In August, October and Rain Over Madrid, Barba’s first full-length works translated into English, the author attends to more conventional types of transformation: puberty, fatherhood, and grief. These transitions are not so much physical, as in the earlier texts, but emotional, and they signal a shift in Barba’s work, a move away from the gritty realms of prostitutes and orphans to the unspoken depravity of domestic life.
August, October, a novel, opens with Tomás, a fourteen-year-old boy on vacation with his family at the seashore, masturbating to the image of an “abstract amalgam of girls.” His pleasure is intense and displeasing, we’re told. But Eros isn’t the only drive in Tomás’s life. A few days later, he tries to drown himself: “it occurred to him that he could die there, and the idea didn’t frighten him in the slightest.” His parents insist that he had an accident, that their son would never try to kill himself. Tomás doesn’t argue with them.
But Barba makes clear that their explanation is a form of naïveté: “Deep down they were a childish family. Just as some families were melancholy, or happy, or destructive, theirs was a childish family.” Tomás’s brush with suicide disabuses him of this childishness and initiates a rift between him and his family. His terminally ill Aunt Eli begins to repulse him. His parents look depleted. As Tomás further isolates himself, he becomes a stern critic of his parents:
All his life, he’d admired his father’s grace, and now he was discovering—as though the discovery had occurred while watching him sleep but taken until that moment to be confirmed—that he was also a troubled man, biased, impatient, perhaps sensual; he was discovering that his grace was the result of a pretense, a pretense as ingrained as a habit or an incurable defect.
In his father, Tomás sees a vision of his future self: flawed and vulnerable. Essentially, human. To counteract this, Tomás ditches his family to hang out with a group of boys from the poor part of town. The boys are hardened and reckless, veritable Lotharios of the dock: they see sex “simply [as] a basic, vital thing ever present in the world of possibilities.” Tomás, a shy, sensitive virgin, is an outsider among them. He becomes further alienated, suspended between the dock boys and his family.
In this liminal space, he learns to think for himself, albeit with the prescriptive ennui of an angsty teenager: “He had never before suspected that life also entailed infinite shame, and that that shame was so directly and heartlessly related to physical pain.” The pain is question is that of Tomás’s Aunt Eli. Days later, she passes away, and the family proves incompetent in the face of death. In the hospital, they don’t even realize Aunt Eli has died and continue caring for her corpse. They attend the funeral wearing beach pastels, reassuring themselves Aunt Eli would have liked their attire. Only Tomás seems aware that they are deluding themselves.
 In the days after her death, Tomás spends more time with the dock boys. Their violent, sexualized lives offer him a reprieve from his grieving family. Death, for them, is as unremarkable as sex. Tomás wishes he could think like they do, but he is clearly grieving, despite his best efforts not to. It is his authentic, indelible grief that separates him from the dock boys. Barba pushes their differences to an extreme when the boys pressure Tomás into gang-raping a mentally challenged teenager. When it is his turn, he fakes it, wishing only that he could apologize to the girl. It takes an act of brutality to awaken Tomás to his morality.
The final part of the book, “October,” veers toward sentimentality. Tomás is no Meursault. His gruesome act on the beach haunts his psyche, spurring him on a mission of atonement at odds with his character and the nature of the book. He redeems himself without much of an effort, a perhaps too simplistic conclusion to an otherwise unflinching portrait of adolescence.
The shape and expectations of a novel just might not be suited for Barba’s particular skill set. Readers of “The Coming Flood” know the author excels when he denies his readers a neat resolution. In his collection of novellas, Rain Over Madrid¸ the author plays to this strength, driving his characters toward states of self-opposition where they begin to grasp, without fully comprehending, their own complicated selfhoods.
Like August, October, the novellas in Rain Over Madrid take the family as its primary subject. The opening novella, “Fatherhood,” follows a handsome, unnamed musician as he struggles to build a relationship with his son. His commitment to his son is questionable, and throughout the piece Barba explores the difference between merely fathering a child and actually being a father.
The protagonist straddles the line between superficiality and authenticity. A small-time musician, he uses his talent primarily as a tool for picking up women. One of those women, Sonia, shows up at his apartment pregnant one morning. She moves in, but the relationship fizzles once she reveals that she is wealthy. What good is a father, Barba asks, if he cannot provide emotional or financial support? After their son Anton is born, the protagonist proves to be a clueless father: “Every time that he saw [his son] he brought a gift that only seemed appropriate for the previous child, the one he’d been the last time he saw him.”
Over the course of six years the protagonist finds it increasingly difficult to communicate with his son. Though he remains a capable womanizer. In the novella’s final scene, the father sits his son in front of a TV and passes out in his bedroom, trying to sleep off a hangover. When he wakes, one of his recent lovers is watching TV with the boy. Her kindness stabilizes the scene and offers the father a template for how to treat his son.
The piece ends when the father comes to an ambiguous insight while the three are playing Monopoly: “Six, three, four, Jail, a house, and every time they pass Go, the glimmering, long-awaited twenty-thousand-peseta bill. And then, suddenly, he understands.” What the father understands remains unclear. How to be a good father? How to treat this new lover kindly? Here, Barba highlights the superficiality of an epiphany, resisting the template offered by Joyce to so many other writers of short fiction. This ending may ostensibly provide closure, but it complicates what readers might have hoped would be made simple. We are left merely hoping the father will reform, even though nothing about him suggests that he will.
“Guile” and “Fidelity” both center on women drawn toward unforeseen relationships as they work through family crises. “Guile” examines the unexpected relationships we form to work through grief. The middle-aged protagonist is facing the slow death of her mother (Mamá). Early on, the story feels like a conventional tale about a mother and daughter working through their strained past. But Barba is not aiming for reconciliation—these characters cannot even admit to loving each other.
Instead, Barba tracks the protagonist’s burgeoning obsession with her mother’s caretaker, the nineteen-year-old Anita. It is she, and not the protagonist, who seems most affected by Mama’s illness: “I don’t want to see Señora die. Do you understand? I don’t want Señora to die in front of me.” As Mamá’s condition worsens, Anita and the protagonist form the sort of bond one would expect between mother and daughter. Ironically, it is the daughter, not Mamá, who Anita seems to be caring for.
Two years after Mamá’s death, the protagonist sees Anita at the mall and trails her. Their eventual interaction is hardly chummy: “Please don’t follow me anymore,” Anita says. As Anita departs, the protagonist belatedly suffers the grief she had evaded. She weeps for some time and then walks onto the street feeling “as if she were now free from something—of what, she did not know—finally, marvelously, free.” Without the buffer of Anita’s friendship, the protagonist is free to experience pain. Grief, Barba suggests, is both debilitating and freeing, but it must be faced head-on. And the protagonist’s friendship with Anita—who represents a safe connection to death—offers a refreshing contrast to the clichéd depiction of sex as a balm for mourning.
“Fidelity” follows seventeen-year-old Marina as she ventures toward sexual freedom. The novella begins with a dismissal of literary sex: “While making love for the fourth time in her life, Marina thought for the first time (the other three, she’d set out to simply feel, to register information) that real physical pleasure—the flickering that came of that bumbling, fondling game—was nothing like any fictional version she’d ever red in a novel.” Marina, the daughter of a literary scholar, rebukes fictionalized sex while having sex in her father’s library, setting the tone for a novella concerned with the interplay between sex and its resultant narratives.
Marina’s lover is Ramón, an insecure Adonis with a crippling case of test anxiety. But their relationship is not the foremost love affair on Marina’s mind. While volunteering for Doctors Without Borders, she spies her father with his mistress. Instead of exposing him, she infiltrates the mistress’s apartment under the pretense of handing out leaflets. Sitting in the apartment, Marina wonders, “How much tedium, how much wisdom, how much life, how much love was contained in those empty teacups, those half-filled bookshelves, that nervousness, that dress she wore?” Barba is drawn to these sorts of intense, conflicting emotions. After leaving the apartment, Marina imagines her father together with his mistress, Sandra. The image hardly disgusts her. “She’d been immediately turned on . . . envisioning Sandra pronouncing those words [Do whatever you want to me]. She was turned on against her will.”
This type of emotional honesty reappears throughout Barba’s work. His characters are often self-centered, aggrieved, and closed-off. They are not abnormal. They merely live in a world—our world—where love of oneself is prioritized over love of others. The domestic realm, for Barba, is rife with superficial love and habituated affection, but literature offers a way to break through habit and superficiality. Barba’s goal is to force his characters to confront their undisclosed, authentic feelings; this is not merely character development, but character transformation. The narrative arc serves as a transitional phase into a new personhood.  
For Marina, this means discovering her capacity for empathy. Late in the story, on a chance encounter with Sandra, Marina intuits that her father has ended the affair. She decides to have a drink with Sandra, knowing the woman does not want to be alone. Adult love, she realizes, is composed of betrayals and sudden conclusions. This realization culminates when, on vacation with her parents, Marina wakes early one morning and watches them sleep:
Up until now, she’d assumed that it was for fear of seeing their nakedness, albeit accidentally, that she was embarrassed to watch her parents sleep, now she understood that what she was really afraid of, what she was ashamed of, was something else; it was as though something had altered their intimacy itself. She felt like she’d never truly seen them before.
The final novella, “Shopping,” follows a thirty-one year old woman Christmas shopping with her mother, Nelly, a self-centered and beautiful woman. Here, Barba once again explores the divide between parents and children. Families are composed of conflicting narratives. And in the story the protagonist tells herself, her father, recently deceased, was a kind, loving man who Nelly treated with unwarranted cruelty. Throughout the novella, the protagonist’s memories frequently interrupt the real-time narrative, drawing readers back to her parent’s ill-fated marriage, her father’s slow death, and Nelly’s ostensible cruelty. These memories force the protagonist to reconsider her parents’ relationship. Over the course of the day, Papá devolves from a spurned saint into a lovesick drunk who manipulated his daughter into feeling sympathy for him. Nelly’s selfishness undergoes its own stark revision. Character, Barba reminds us, is nothing but a fabrication of perspective.
Lisa Dillman, translator of both books, has worked with Barba in the past, and here she does an excellent job rendering Barba’s prose with precision and clarity, even as his long sentences map the minutiae of thought over numerous clauses. In Dillman’s translations, Barba’s psychological acuity is patient and uncompromising; it sheds light on the dark corners of the mind that very few authors attempt to explore. The depraved, selfish, and violent thoughts that drive his characters are not deviant thoughts, but disturbingly normal: his characters are all too human in their vanity, cruelty, and naked love. - Alex McElroy

Rain Over Madrid
Andrés Barba, Rain Over Madrid, Trans. by Lisa Dillman, Hispabooks, 2014.   

A collection of four novellas—"Fatherhood," "Guile," "Fidelity" and "Shopping"—where intense loneliness and desire guide an alienated cast of characters. In these poignant depictions of repression and guilt Barba captures existential mystery in seemingly banal moments of domestic strife, family tension, and romantic entanglements.                       

“She remembers that the comment really stung and then immediately stopped stinging—like accidentally touching an open sore—when she took into account that a virtue can also be a defect if you just shift your perspective a few inches.” Taken from one of the four novellas comprising Rain Over Madrid—“Fatherhood,” “Guile,” “Fidelity,” and “Shopping”—these words encapsulate the whole book’s leitmotiv: all of a sudden, someone is finally able to comprehend somebody else’s life.
By featuring totally divergent characters in different settings, Barba in these stories tackles issues such as death, the inability to communicate feelings, the sudden eruption of love, fascination for the other, the architecture of desire and the fear of happiness. An exceptional collection and an enticing read.

Andrés Barba's Rain Over Madrid is a collection of four novellas running to just over two-hundred pages.  Each takes place in the Spanish capital, and the stories are mostly about people coming to terms with love and family - fairly commonplace topics, but handled nicely.
The first piece, 'Fatherhood' sees a semi-successful musician becoming a father when his rich girlfriend unexpectedly falls pregnant.  While the relationship with the mother is fairly shortlived, he realises that fatherhood is something that lasts forever:

"It seemed then, for the first time, that a sort of transference took place; he didn't know how else to explain it - a boundless well of emotion, and also pain at the fact that intimacy and natural behaviour were not possible between them.  Until that moment, he'd only ever sensed it in the vaguest of ways, but now it seemed undeniable."'Fatherhood', p.33 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The story extends over several years, with Barba chronicling the man's attempt to stay close to the boy he rarely sees.  Will he ever be able to break through the barrier of politeness separating them?
The other stories then move on to see matters through the eyes of women.  In 'Guilt', a married woman is forced to act as the focal point for her family, with matters coming to a head when she is forced to look for (yet another) live-in home help for her ageing, cantankerous mother.  The main character of 'Fidelity', by contrast, is a teenage girl discovering sex for the first time and generally having a wonderful time.  However, her summer in the sun turns a little sour when she finds out that she's not the only one in her family having some fun.
The final piece, 'Shopping', follows a woman approaching middle age and her glamorous mother, Nelly.  This is no maternal figure, rather a whirlwind in Prada, and her idea of being 'natural' is not what the daughter would hope for:

"Not so for Nelly.  Nelly is natural like a typhoon is natural, like all self-centered egotists, like a disaster, like the Grand Canyon, like a luxury item ensconced in an absurdly minimalist display case in a glittery shop window."'Shopping', p.171
As they go shopping in the snow for Christmas presents, the daughter sees chinks in her mother's armour for the first time, making it easier for her to make allowances for Nelly's bossy behaviour.  After all, everyone gets old...
Rain Over Madrid is an enjoyable read with four excellent stories.  Despite the extended time span of the first two stories, it almost seems as if the book is divided into seasons, as we move from the eternal spring of 'Fatherhood', to the winter streetscape of 'Shopping'.  Each story looks at a moment of realisation, a time when a life changes direction.  Not all of the turning points are dramatic, but they're all important in their own way.
The protagonists (mostly written in the first person) struggle with relationships, and each must deal with big personalities in their lives, whether they be lovers, sisters, fathers or mothers.  Introverts for the most part, yet desiring emotion and human contact, the central characters are confronted by people who are completely self-absorbed and self-obsessed.  In order to get what they want from their relationships, Barba's creations must make an effort to assert themselves, even though it may seem easier at times to just go with the flow.
The stories are written in an excellent style, calm, casual and very easy to read.  I enjoyed Dillman's work with the translation as the stories flow nicely.  There are no jarring tones, and the dialogue and description are seamlessly integrated, making for an excellent read.  There are a few obvious Americanisms, but you can't have everything, especially when the translator comes from the States ;)
Rain Over Madrid is another enjoyable work from Hispabooks, and it's definitely a book many will enjoy.  The four stories are interesting, very accessible and easy to read in a single setting, despite their length - hopefully this bodes well for getting more from Barba into English soon :)  -

Spanish author Andres Barba’s English language debut, brought to you by the amazing folks at Hispabooks Publishing (who are bringing previously untranslated contemporary Spanish authors for the English speaking reader something I’ve been waiting for for some time now). In his native Spain, Barba is the author of about 12 books of literary fiction, non-fiction, photography, art and children’s books. In 2010 Granta included him in their Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists. It’s easy to see why after reading this collection of four novellas: Fatherhood, Guile, Fidelity, and Shopping. 
Each of the four novellas are connected thematically, each exploring various issues of human nature: death, love, sex, a fascination for the other, desire, fear, fatherhood and the one theme that links all of these stories: the sudden understanding of another person’s life. 
In Fatherhood, we follow a struggling musician who gets his girlfriend pregnant however his girlfriend doesn’t want him in her life and has since found someone else. However the musician does his best to be a father to his son but finds it isn’t as easy as he thought it would be. Guile follows a young woman who is watching her mother slowly disintegrate, both physically and mentally. She hires a young Colombian woman to act as caretaker and becomes slowly fascinated with her. Meanwhile, as her mother’s condition deteriorates, the young woman’s somewhat dysfunctional family dynamic only seems to complicate matters more. Fidelity is about a young woman who — while out being a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders — discovers her father out with another woman. She follows her father’s mistress and becomes fascinated with her (one could even say even a hint of sexual attraction) trying to learn about who this woman is and what it was about her that appealed to her father. Meanwhile, she’s having relationship problems of her own with her hapless boyfriend who can’t seem to get it together. As she tries to come to grips with the idea of her father being unfaithful, she begins to see her parents’ love life in a whole new way. Finally, Shopping, which follows a mother and daughter through one day of Christmas shopping as a light snow falls over Madrid and the complicated dynamic between them as they spend the day together. 
Each of these stories are extremely well written and Barba has the unique talent of getting into his character’s heads in a way not seen by many novelists: complex and extremely realistic, insightful. His prose style is absolutely outstanding, literary without being Literary, often with unique metaphors which precisely pinpoint the emotion or feeling conveyed. An immense talent and well deserving of being included in Granta’s list. Now it’s only a matter of time to see whether or not the English speaking world will take to him as the Spanish speaking world already has. He will, in my view, without a doubt. A truly talented writer who is ready to find a worldwide audience. -

Andrés Barba (Madrid, 1975) is an award-winning Spanish novelist, essayist, translator, scriptwriter and photographer. He is the author of a total of twelve books of literary fiction, non-fiction, photography, arts and children’s literature. His works have been translated into ten languages. In 2010 he was featured in Granta magazine as one of the twenty-two best young Spanish-language writers.