The Barbarian Nurseries
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 422 pp., $27
“The Barbarian Nurseries” is a book of extraordinary scope and extraordinary power.
Héctor Tobar’s second novel sweeps its central character from almost-serfdom and sends her on an odyssey through the teeming mysteries of Los Angeles and the wild jungles of the California judicial system. The publishers compare it to Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” That’s right only up to a point, for Tobar’s concern isn’t satire but the possibilities of social inclusion and redemption. “The Barbarian Nurseries” is in the end a very human book about how none of us really know one another, about how our personal stories are always misunderstood, about the fragile yet sacrosanct chalice that is family, about the dream of freedom.
Araceli Ramirez is an immigrant housekeeper in her late 20s. As a student in Mexico City, she had ambitions to be an artist. Now her hands are covered in suds as a housekeeper in El Norte. She’s single, silent, stoic. She’s considered surly and known as “Madame Weirdness” by her employers, the husband and wife whose surnames are “hyphenated into an odd bilingual concoction ‘Torres-Thompson.’” They own a grand house in a fictional gated community somewhere in Orange County and while not understanding Araceli in the least, they do appreciate her efficiency.
But all is not well in Laguna Rancho Estates (Tobar has a lovely, funny way with names and titles). Scott Torres, a new-technology whiz who knows his best money days are already behind him, has just let go the nanny and the gardener, for whom Araceli yearned and whose old cotton shirts were “an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat.” Now, Araceli finds herself looking after the three Torres-Thompson children while Pepe’s once splendid tropical garden falls into decay.
Scott and his wife, Maureen, throw a party. Most of the two dozen or so guests are former colleagues from the MindWare programming company they all created together back in the heady, hopeful days.
When one, Sasha “the Big Man” Avakian, makes a comment about the unweeded garden, Maureen, the suburban Lady Macbeth of the piece, steps toward him with fury. Then everybody else turns and sees “what the Big Man and Maureen had seen: a living thing that was aging, suddenly, a green corner of this perfect home that had become stricken with a deadly disease.”
That’s one of Tobar’s points. In life, some connections go begging while others get randomly made, with fateful consequences. Maureen’s mortification festers. She recruits a trendy landscape gardener, and teams of Mexican laborers arrive with machetes to chop and hack and cart away Pepe’s labor of love. Within the day, a new garden is in place, a bleak beauty comprising tons of sand and low-maintenance “barbed and spiny” plants from the desert. The cost is huge, and Scott flips when he learns about it, leading to a fight, from which Maureen flees with daughter Samantha. Scott storms out too. And Araceli discovers that she’s home alone with the other children of the Torres-Thompson household, brothers Brandon and Keenan.
A day passes without contact. Then another. High-strung Maureen has secreted herself at a spa. Scott indulges in a 48-hour bacchanalia with a secretary from work. Food is running low in the house, and Araceli doesn’t know what to do. Armed only with an old photo, she sets out with the boys to find their grandfather, Scott’s father. They head northward, “to a distant land called Los Angeles.”
One of Tobar’s conceits in this portion of the novel, and it really works, is to invite his readers to consider Los Angeles as though it were fabulous and exotic — which, of course, it is. His travelers stumble around this unfamiliar place like a lost band of Marco Polos. Later, 11-year-old Brandon recounts the adventure through the filter of all the hundreds of fantasy novels he’s read. “We were looking for Grandpa’s house, because Araceli said we should look for him. But we found this other place instead, where there are houses like jails I guess …. and other things I thought only existed in books. But they were real.”
By then Brandon is telling his tale to a gape-mouthed audience composed not just of his parents but also of cops, lawyers, a psychologist and a formidable young woman from child protective services — for when Scott and Maureen finally got it together to come home, they found the house empty, called the police and accused Araceli of kidnapping. The truth of what happened is already disappearing beneath layers of invention, much as history itself accretes and gathers upon any patch of ground, even in an environment as ostensibly new as SoCal.
An ambitious young assistant district attorney sees a way to make his name and career, and charges are brought against the stubborn and clear-minded Araceli. She herself has no illusions about the way this will most likely go. She “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.”
“Circus Californianus” soon threatens to swallow them all. Media spin cycles and blogosphere chat forums rotate faster than the helicopters that circle Laguna Rancho Estates. The story of the Mexican maid and the lost boys inflames anti-immigrant activists and becomes a cause célèbre for Latinos.
Tobar, a Los Angeles Times columnist, moves nimbly in and out of the minds of a host of characters, viewing even those who seem on the surface the least sympathetic with an awed authorial tenderness. The chief surprise of “The Barbarian Nurseries” is that, despite the social and ethnic schisms it so acutely explores, it turns out to be such a warm novel. Stubborn, even-tempered Araceli is a great and somewhat daunting character, worthy of Gabriel García Márquez.; At the last, Tobar can’t resist rewarding her with more than just “the smooth satisfaction of being a woman who stood her ground.”
Rayner’s recent books include “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age” and “The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California.”