Last week I read a great book. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. I can’t recommend it enthusiastically enough.
This fine novel has everything that turns me on as a reader. Beautiful, complex writing. Multidimensional, surprising characters who are anything but pat. A deeply involving story—I’m telling you, I was on the edge of my seat through the middle 200 pages, and not in a shallow cinematic-car-chase sense, oh no, what is at stake in Tobar’s plot is ever so much more meaningful and important than anything any thriller writer ever conceived. Class consciousness, to the max. And most of all, social engagement, for this is a profoundly relevant and timely novel. Relevant, that is, to some of the most compelling issues facing our class here and now.
Primary among these issues is immigration, specifically the struggles of undocumented workers and the racist war being waged against them. It’s not for me to say, but I suspect this just might be the novel of Los Angeles and southern California. The novel that tells the truth.
Necessarily the reader is drawn immediately and throughout to take sides. From start to finish we are on the side of the main character, a Mexican immigrant, undocumented, who works in the household of a well-off suburban couple. Tobar is a large hearted writer, allowing every character her/his humanity even when objectively they don’t deserve our sympathy, sketching no one as a stick figure or stereotype.
Still, his great achievement is his protagonist, Araceli Ramirez. An artist who finds herself stuck cooking and cleaning in someone else’s house, ultimately stuck taking care of someone else’s kids when she never wanted to, smart, prickly, resentful and full of contradictions—that is, fully human, as many-layered as every human being is—Tobar’s Araceli is never less than fascinating. I can’t remember the last time I cared so much about a fictional character, was so invested in where her story would lead.
There’s too much juice here to suck it dry by giving more specific details about the story itself. Readers should come at it clean. Let it sweep you along. I will note that I was a bit puzzled at the end, at Tobar’s treatment of a certain southwestern state as the story winds down. It almost left me wondering whether there’s a sequel in the works. That would be splendid.
(Shelley Ettinger’s review was first published on February 6, 2012, on her blog, READ RED (http://readwritered.blogspot.com/search?q=Barbarian+Nurseries)
I know I liked Héctor Tobar ‘s The Barbarian Nurseries a lot because after finishing it, I found myself missing its world and feeling grumpy that I wasn’t going to be going back to it. It’s one of those big, broad, many-charactered and many-voiced novels such as Tom Wolfe writes– only politically progressive, like an upbeat Bonfire of the Vanities. It would count as politerature if only for how much of the story explores the lives and varied voices and experiences of people who are not usually given such attention.
The most important character is Araceli Ramirez, who, after a poor childhood, has spent a year at the ostensibly free national school of the arts in “el de efe” (the Federal District, Mexico City). However, while classes might be free, Araceli finds books and supplies prohibitively expensive, and she also has a brutal commute and very little support from her family. She drops out of higher education and comes undocumented to Los Angeles to work, ending up as a house keeper for Maureen and Scott Torres.
One of the best things about this book is the precision of each character’s background. Araceli is not a single mother deserted by a man, but an artist who doesn’t like kids very much. Scott Torres, her employer, made a lot of money in the nineties computer boom, and has a Mexican father but almost no interest in his heritage. There are a number of characters with Spanish last names who don’t speak much Spanish. Everyone with a Spanish last name is not Mexican– author Tobar himself is the son of Guatemalan immigrants. Precision like this is the rock-solid best and maybe only way to dispense with stereotypes and clichés– and it is also the best road to good fiction.
The Torres family lives in a gated community just outside Los Angeles. Maureen Torres has taken on the sacred duty of being the Angel of the House and creating a place of perfect beauty and grace, rich with learning opportunities for her children. There have been financial setbacks, however, and Scott and Maureen have fired two of the employees who made their oasis of domesticity possible. Araceli now has to do everything, and financial conflict arises quickly between Maureen and Scott. A third of the way into the novel, they have a fight that gets physical and sends them off separately on mini-vacations from their responsibilities, each thinking the other is still home, but in any case assuming that Araceli will take care of everything. Unfortunately, no one gives Araceli the agenda, and after the Torres adults have been gone a couple of days, the real action starts.
As SE points out above, Tobar tries to give a fair shake to Scott and Maureen, with more or less success, and even to one appalling home-grown anti-immigrant rabble rouser. Actually, the rabble-rouser comes out better than the Torres couple: she is financially stretched and bitter over her life. The Torreses, however, have not only walked out on their kids, but when they do come home, they let a politically ambitious junior DA manipulate them. Araceli is arrested and labeled a kidnapper.
It is a book with a lot of event, many things to be outraged by– but also amused by. It does not, however, to its credit, pander to Hollywood’s conventions of beats and violence: there’s no bloody shoot out, and while Araceli gains a little affection for the boys, she is still happy when she can responsibly turn them over to someone else. Things in this novel also build slowly as in real life. Mistakes in an unjust system lead to greater injustices. At the same time, people organize against the injustices, not always efficiently, but totally believably.
Probably the real star of the novel is the city of Los Angeles and environs. Tobar, a journalist, clearly knows and loves his city. He takes Araceli and her two young charges on foot and public transportation through parts of the city that tourists don’t see. I find the scenes of place and the old neighborhoods (and the boys’ delight in the newness of the world which they persist in seeing as scenes from a fantasy novel) especially moving. I’ve been in Los Angeles a couple of times in the last few years, and now I want to see the rest of it.
I have complaints: I like the slow build-up in the first third, but it uses aggregation if description rather than selection. Thus you get all the plants in both the Torres family’s dying rainforest garden and then in the expensive new desert garden that replaces it. You learn in detail all the toys the boys have in their room, and the objects in the house. Describing such a possession-dominated dwelling in detail is appropriate, of course, but I got tired of it, which I never did in the parts describing cityscapes.
A bigger problem for me (although not for SE above) was that I was not totally convinced by Araceli. I certainly was on her side and cared about her, but she wasn’t quite all there for me. She didn’t seem to have organs: a belly, a vagina. She is carefully presented as being interested in men, and she gets a promising (if too-good-to-be-true) boyfriend, but I wasn’t satisfied. Maureen, the missus, did feel like a complete human being– albeit a cringe-causing human being, but her world view of domesticity as religion felt just right. Araceli didn’t feel wrong, just unfinished.However, I would maintain that this novel is not primarily about the inner lives and motivations of individuals. It is a novel deeply felt and passionate, but written from the outside, and what I want to say is that this is a very good thing.
Tobar has (like Theodore Dreiser) the great strength of a journalist, which is the big picture. He is compassionate for sure, but his understanding comes from looking outside in. This makes THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES a novel about the world instead of about one or two people and their private sufferings. It isn’t about the squashed artistic genius of Araceli Ramirez. It’s about Araceli in the world, working, seeking help in the city, building a respectful but limited relationship with her two little princes of the gated communities. Tobar gives us the cynical political structure as represented by the junior DA, but he also gives us a proud Mexican-American town councilman and a disgruntled Mexican consul who acts as a sort of deus ex machina in Araceli’s time of need.
Tobar is able to make a novel that actually captures the complexity of the world he’s chosen to write about. Best of all, for all the rotten behavior by individuals and classes in power, he sees wonderful energy surging from below, from groups and individuals. There is, then, a lot of hope in this novel.