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[527] The Barbarian Nurseries – Héctor Tobar

” But now that her name and her face had been fed into that tragic stream of the wanted, the apprehended, and the deported, she felt the need to resist. My words and my true story will not buy me my freedom, not right away. Araceli would speak her story in Spanish and la señora Maureen would tell hers in English: it was obvious to her that the two languages did not carry equal weight. ” (Book Two, 15:250)

Americans take pride on their country’s being a melting pot in which racial diversity is embraced, showcased, and celebrated. Yet Americans, like the well-ff mixed-race couple that are in the limelight of The Barbarian Nurseries, are slow to recognize, or even ignorant of, the tensions along the faultlines of social divide and cultural terrain. What is more realistic than to set this marriage drama, which spun out of control and became a public crisis, with a Mexican maid being a célèbre in Tobar’s native Los Angeles, where diversity is not a tell-tale sign of social understanding, but rather a metropolis fraught with racial tension.

The nervousness of the last days lifted away, a hair-chewing anxiety heightened by the anarchic chopping, hacking, and slicing of the first crew of the morning. What am I doing, allowing these sweaty barbarians into my home? But no, she was taking charge of her little domestic empire . . . (Book One, 8:94)

In beautiful Orange County, in a privileged seaside community separated from the municipal miasma, the Torres-Thompson strives to maintain a façade that all is going well. Money has been tight after a flop in investments. When frugality seems to be the mandate, Maureen Torres-Thompson, seethed in a fur upon a random comment made about her unweeded garden during an extravagant birthday party for her son, recruits a trendy landscape designer to purge of the petite rainforest and put in place an exotic desert garden. When an argument between husband and wife turns violent, Maureen flees with her baby daughter and sequesters at a spa while Scott indulges in a two-day bacchanalia with a secretary from work. They quit the house respectively, and by a misunderstanding, leaving their two sons to the care of Araceli, the young, surly Mexican maid whom they never (bother to) understand but whose efficiency they appreciate. When neither of them shows up after four days, and food runs low, Araceli takes the boys to central Los Angeles, through dangerous, run-down neighborhood far from the warm security and predictability known to them in the hopes of finding Scott’s estranged Mexican father. Soon this earnest quest leads to serious consequences that ripple through every political and racial strata of the sprawling city.

Maureen was burying her subtle falsehoods in a larger truth unknown, until now, to the millions who had followed the story. Their Internet commentary would soon be peppered with sympathetic descriptions” “the screamer” was, in fact, a woman who sounded “quite reasonable.” She was an “educated and articulate” mother who “obviously loved her children,” had suffered “every parent’s nightmare,” and who was “clearing telling the truth” about discovering her sons missing. (Book Three, 19:314)

Maureen’s pride and sense of self-entitlement have thrust her family into this crisis, although she meant no harm for her Mexican maid. The small lie, the tricky evasiveness about their physical fight, contribute to Araceli’s jailing. The Barbarian Nurseries is so powerful in scope and audacious in revealing the truth about social and racial divide. That someone like Maureen, well-educated and articulate, automatically tilts the scale of believability in favor of her because she is the responsible mother who has been violated. The novel renounces how we as a country are so disgustingly obsessed with jumping into the first opportunity at politicizing racial issues and justifying our distorted view that people who are not like us lack basic human morality and intelligence. The strength of this book is to be found in its sympathetic portrayals of people who struggle to find a common language yet persist in misunderstanding one another–marriage-wise and race-wise. The author devotes considerable effort to inhabiting his characters’ inner lives.

422 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. Beautifully written review, Matthew. This book would suit my taste preferences very well and the story sounds very rich and engaging.

    • Becca, I think this book shall be coined the new American novel. It captures our reality very thoroughly. I was reading the final pages at a coffee shop when a retinue of stroller-pushing Mexican helps walked by and I thought this book could not be written at a better time. It is well-plotted but also sheds light into the characters’ psychological depth.

  2. […] [527] The Barbarian Nurseries – Héctor Tobar […]

  3. […] The Barbarian Nurseries Héctor Tobar Easily the top read of the year, this is a truly American novel. It is so powerful in scope and audacious in revealing the truth about social and racial divide. That someone like Maureen, well-educated and articulate, automatically tilts the scale of believability in favor of her because she is the responsible mother who has been violated. The novel renounces how we as a country are so disgustingly obsessed with jumping into the first opportunity at politicizing racial issues and justifying our distorted view that people who are not like us lack basic human morality and intelligence. Stoner by John Williams This is the classic novel about one man’s thrive in silence, in dignity, and in solemnity. Though sold out on his passion for literature and teaching, Stoner never rises above the rank of assistant professor. Few students remember him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. His marriage turns out to be a failure just after honeymoon. His wife shuts him off emotionally and physically, leaving him the only option to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live. As his wife manipulatively turns his daughter away from him, he takes on extra workload with an intensity and ferocity that awes his colleagues. But his career is stymied as his mentor Archer Sloane, is replaced by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes Stoner’s implacable enemy. Why isn’t this book adopted into a film? The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman In this debut novel, Stedman creates strong argument on both sides, delving into the blurring of lines between right and wrong. The book takes its predictable course toward a neutral compromise where justice for one is another’s tragic loss. Moving but also contrived at times, the novel explores the snarl of human emotion, and how far-gone even the best of intentions can go awry. This story about a good man who cannot keep a secret and who sacrifices himself for his wife’s choices will leave you emotionally invested. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings A close look at how a man copes with life as his wife is about to be cut off life support. But there’s more to be known about her. King’s narrative voice is plausible and persuasive, in his pared-down lyricism as much as his comic bemusement, which derives from his desperate attempts to rein in his daughters and their disdainful responses to his careful ministrations. The Descendants is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged man, a father’s awakening to responsibility and to love, because, as he ruefully notes, he is not comfortable to showing affection. […]

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