Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba review – a chilling ghost story

An unsettling tale set in an orphanage will trouble readers long after they have put the novella aside

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’s The Essex Serpent is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Such Small Hands is published by Portobello. To order a copy for £8.49 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Sarah Perry

The GuardianTramp

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