Near the end of Peter Weir’s masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock, the young girl Irma, who has been missing for a few weeks, returns to Appleyard, an all-girl school in Victorian Australia, to say her farewells. She enters the room where her former classmates, dressed in white, are performing some exercises at some hanging beams. Irma stands in red between the beams, smiling. Her classmates, though, cannot bear to let her go quite so easily. They’ve been at Appleyard, “innocent,” while Irma was up to who knows what, and they must know. It’s suddenly an outright assault, as they demand to know what happened! This desire for forbidden knowledge, the jealousy, attraction, and hatred toward one who seems to know, is conveyed with all of its horror in that brief scene. In his novella Such Small Hands, Spanish author Andrés Barba extends the scene and modulates it all with tiny voices and gruesome games.
Marina is a young girl whose parents recently died in a car accident she was fortunate enough to survive. “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital,” she repeats over an over again, this seeming to be one of the only phrases to gain any traction in her shocked mind. Now orphaned, Marina is sent to live at an orphanage with many other young girls, many of whom have never really known of a world outside.
Barba transitions from Marina’s voice, to the first-person plural of the group of girls, and back, throughout the novella, showing us how disconnected Marina is, how she longs for connection, and how much the group of girls longs for her experience. This can be a dangerous combination.
As the weeks go by, Marina remains on the inside of her own life, the other girls outside looking in, or trying to. And we’ve all seen this before. We’ve all been through this, as children, as adults watching children. The group is predatory. As much as they long to connect to this girl, to have what she has, there is a desire to annihilate her, as they themselves feel reduced in her presence.
But in Such Small Hands, Barba has Marina exert control with a strange game that embodies the desire, the undeveloped sexuality, the secrets, and the violence. The group of girls has no defense:
The room was still dark but we could hear her voice, boundless as the horizon. We know now, that we were brave that night, but we didn’t know then. We know now, too, that we didn’t have to go to her, didn’t have to get out of our beds, didn’t have to feel the cold of the floor tiles, that it would have been easy to take her violence and her magnetism in our hand and crush it. And yet we went.
This strange nightly ritual continues:
Closing our eyes, we’d compel our bodies to produce the sleep-smell that convinced the adult it was okay for her to go. And we’d lie there like that, motionless, for several minutes. Then, in the dark of night, a strange sound would send the first sign. We’d billow, like skirts in the wind. We’d start to live inside the game, the anxiety of the game. Soon the second sign would come; there would be no doubt now. It could be anything: a whistle, the sound of creaking wood, even silence. And then slowly, we’d get out of bed, without even brushing up against each other, and our bodies would feel lighter. Not even then would we feel the cold of the floor tiles, be afraid of the dark. We were the cold, the dark. And so we’d go to Marina’s bed, sleepwalkers, obsessed with one idea: starting the game.
It’s a troubling book, one I had to read twice to really fall into. My first read, I felt I was mostly skipping along on the surface, seeing a few passages that promised depths. My second, though, knowing where it was going, I was able to plunge into those depths. It was strangely invigorating and troubling. Something I recommend.