A childhood game of playing at being dolls takes a very dark turn.
Spanish novelist Andrés Barba’s eerie novella opens with a car crash. Seven-year-old Marina has survived, although she has sustained a wound – a deep cut that has exposed her ribs. Both parents have been killed in the crash (“Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.”) All that Marina takes away from the crash is a doll, also named Marina.
Marina is interviewed by psychologists and admitted to an orphanage, where she meets other little girls like her. She soon becomes entwined in the lives of the girls. They become fascinated with Marina, a fascination that is cruel, perverse and uninhibited, as can only happen in childhood. The girls begin playing a game, one that turns more and more into a ritual, an almost pagan rite, where each girl has to pretend to be doll. The other girls then “play” with the pretend doll, adding make up and poking and prodding, sometimes drawing blood. Finally, when it is Marina’s turn to play the doll, things go too far.
Such Small Hands is a definite original. It’s atmospheric, claustrophobic and uncanny. Andres Barba brilliantly captures the moral ambiguities of childhood, where children make up their own rules, games and ceremonies, a pre-civilised world that follows its own logic. The story is perhaps closest to French novelist Jean Genet’s bizarre play, The Maids, in which two downtrodden and self-loathing maid’s dress up as their madame. Both stories mix artifice, ceremony and a muddled up moral universe, where none of the players can figure out what is right and what is wrong.
This is a strange little novel, written with an inspired authenticity, that is a rare experience in literature. A slow, unfolding nightmare of a book, not to be read late at night.
Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba. Published by Portobello. ISBN: 9781846276439 RRP: $24.99
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