Monday, February 6, 2012

The Barbarian Nurseries

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 largehearted 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.