Reading Tobar’s novel, the thought of Zola came to mind. I’ve only read one Zola novel, over thirty years ago, and can’t remember much about it. So it was more of an associative, instinctive thought than anything worthy of a literature PhD. In truth, the word Zola could have been Dickens or Balzac or, any other suitable 19th century novelist who set out to tackle their world in all its verticality.
Tobar’s protagonist is a gawky Mexican nanny, called Araceli. When the parents of the two kids she’s looking after go AWOL, Araceli takes them on a misguided trip through Los Angeles’ hinterlands in a bid to find their grandfather. This mission doesn’t go to plan and Araceli ends up paying the price for her good intentions. Tobar’s story is not overly complex. It’s a slow burner, which takes its time to let both narrative and world unwind. The characters, principally Araceli and her two charges, Brandon and Keenan and their parents, Scott and Maureen, are not so much formed as assembled, gradually acquiring depth and colour as their story unfolds. It’s a meticulous, detailed investigation of Californian society, which looks not merely at the social divide between the Mexican nanny and her arriviste employers, but also the legal and political structures which underpin this social system.
The Barbarian Nurseries is never the most subtle of novels. It benefits from a clear sense of dramatic tension: we don’t know how, firstly, the children’s fate, and secondly, Araceli’s fate, are going to pan out. However, more than anything else, this is a novel that looks to expose the unspoken inequalities of our contemporary world. These inequalities reside in the space where ‘first’ and ‘third’ world meet. They are present every day in the glorious West, only to be resolutely ignored by the arts, with the occasional honorable exception. Where are the contemporary novelists trying to get to grips with our savage matrix? Perhaps they’re out there and they’ve passed me by, but to my mind Tobar’s novel is remarkable as the exception rather than the rule.
There’s a rationale to this. Literature generally emerges from a set society. Writers emerge from these societies, knowing their world intimately, but lacking the same depth of understanding of the other parallel worlds which live in suspension, surrounding their primary universe. (The rings of Saturn.) Tobar’s immersion in the dual Anglo-Mexican world of Los Angeles, a city which sits on a contemporary faultline of the globalised world, offers him privileged access. On the whole, the role of a successful novelist works against their ability to analyse the actuality of the world. The successful novelist, in the Western world, enters a bubble of friendly festivals and like-minded literary souls, where they drink fine wine or organic juices, and glory, as they have every right to, in their brilliance. A brilliance which isolates them from the other worlds, which are less brilliant, darker, less accessible. Success, when it comes to the job of depicting the world, is a poisoned chalice. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that there aren’t more novelists out there, probing at the warp and weave of a globalised world, (which, today, is the world, just as much as any localised world, beautifully concocted, might be the world), even though the novel retains its primacy as the most effective artistic medium for this kind of vertical investigation. The hybrid nature of our unjust world is precisely the thing that mitigates against it receiving the imaginative analysis which a Zola, or a Dickens, brought to their worlds. Tobar’s doughy, conscientious novel kicks back against the tide. It’s a welcome attempt to penetrate the myth of Western security, which is perhaps all the more subversive for its gentle, warm-hearted tone.