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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Such Small Hands

Andrés Barba

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To purchase Such Small Hands

Title: Such Small Hands
Author: Andrés Barba
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 105 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Such Small Hands - US
Las manos pequeñas - US
Such Small Hands - UK
Such Small Hands - Canada
Piccole mani - Italia
Las manos pequeñas - España
  • Spanish title: Las manos pequeñas
  • Translated and with a Note by Lisa Dillman
  • With an Afterword by Edmund White

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Our Assessment:

A : near-perfect childhood tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 11/8/2017 Lucy Scholes
The Guardian A+ 26/8/2017 Sarah Perry
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/4/2017 R.O. Kwon
TLS . 19/1/2018 Alex Howlett

  From the Reviews:
  • "Such Small Hands is a magnificently chilling antidote to society’s reverence for ideas of infantile innocence and purity. (...) Hatred and love, rage and desire, the violent and the erotic -- everything becomes entangled." - Lucy Scholes, Financial Times

  • "Barba inhabits the minds of children with an exactitude that seems to me so uncanny as to be almost sinister (.....) 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." - Sarah Perry, The Guardian

  • "Barba is intensely alive to the shifting, even Janus-faced nature of strong feeling. The girls’ collective hatred often and easily flips into love. Desire turns to rage, and back again." - R.O. Kwon, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Barba uses few words to communicate a multitude of feelings, instead expanding each word to create space for interpretation. He transforms language into something unknown, much like it is for a young child. The effect is sensory. The impact of the car crash at the beginning of the novel is described as "colossal", its reverberations reaching the girls in the orphanage and changing their lives indelibly. Barba’s writing could be described in a similar way." - Alex Howlett, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       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, 7 September 2017

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Such Small Hands: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Andrés Barba was born in 1975.

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© 2017-2018 the complete review

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