Marina’s parents have been killed in an accident, a trauma that she conceptualises through the sounds of the words used to break the news to her; “Your father died instantly and your mother died just now.”, as well as the smooth white lines of the car seat that she was looking at before the vehicle the family were in is fatally flipped over. The beauty of Barba’s novella, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, is in these details, small horrors described in sentences that are allowed to luxuriate in the visceral heat of childhood, for instance when Marina wets herself after learning she will be sent to an orphanage, “She felt the hot, acidic urine run down her legs to her shoes and she felt the shame, which was also hot: a dark, robust, inescapable mass.”
When she gets to the orphanage accompanied by her doll, also Marina, we are introduced to the rest of the girls who live there. These children who Marina can’t distinguish between, are heard from in unison, Greek chorus style. To them Marina’s arrival is a disruption of their shared sense of self and through her they are shocked into the realisation that they are individuals. Their proceeding obsession with her is disturbing in its violence and sexuality.
The full and descriptive sentences in Such Small Hands are really the best thing about it, and they are particularly moving at the beginning, so much so that when I’d finished it, which I did quickly -it’s a short book, I went back and read the opening part again. A good one if you like books that describe the dark side of childhood or confusing experiences being richly explored through language.