Such Small Hands, by the Spanish writer Andrés Barba, is a truly disquieting tale of
a young, newly orphaned girl, called Marina, whose parents were both killed in a
car crash – or rather her father was, her mother died in the hospital – a statement of fact that Marina repeats again and again almost mechanically to the child psychologists that question her. Marina herself was ripped open in the accident with a wound that ran from her shoulder on through to her sternum, exposing her white ribs, tearing her flesh, and leaving her with spectacular scars.
At times the book reads almost like a ghost story or a dream, so strong is the writer’s sense of the child, of the etherial, and of Marina’s presence, a presence that we are never sure is of her dead, of her remembered life, or of her now, with her little dolly that she clings to: “Because dolly was the only one who didn’t lie”.
Marina is, after her wounds heal, taken from the hospital to an orphanage where she seems almost invisible amongst the other little girls who she thinks are all alike and whose faces blur into one. Yet at night while they sleep, Marina wanders around the dormitory and looks at them, at their faces:
She’d slip out of bed feeling the cold floor tiles beneath her feet and creep over to one of 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.
Marina tries to fit in and to be loved, to make the other girls love her. She is odd one, the girl from a nice, middle class home who was taken to Disneyland and had her picture taken with Mickey Mouse, and who went on a rollercoaster ride three times. Then when the adults weren’t looking the other girls would hit her, “Never very hard, usually just softly”.
This is a story that doesn’t so much build but rather envelopes you in a world of child-like menace and loneliness, and when Marina stops eating to try to win the other girls love and shows one of them her scars with a mixture of ecstasy and trepidation, we feel her pain, not just the physical but the emotional as well:
…The skin around the scar contracted in a fleeting spasm and the girl opened her mouth,
as if she wanted to devour everything: the air, the feel of the fig tree, Marina’s arrogance, her own fear. It wasn’t the same scar she saw in the bathroom every day when they took their showers; this one was crying out to be touched, to be admired, nothing made it hide now.
One day Marina’s beloved dolly is taken, later the girls return a leg…
This is a short story, and at just 100 pages can be read in one sitting – but for such a compact novel it packs a big punch that will stay with you long after the book is finished. It is also, apparently, based on actual events which makes the story even more unsettling. Exquisitely written, macabre and beautifully atmospheric, this is a really moving and very unnerving take on childhood innocence, loss and cruelty that for no
particularly reason reminded me in places of films like Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath.