With his 2011 novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar accomplishes something I would have previously thought to be impossible—producing a sprawling, panoramic social novel about Southern California. The key, of course, is intimacy, which is a hallmark of all the finest literature of the Southland: an investigation of the region’s human landscape, neither illusory nor artificial but deeply textured in its emotional concerns. Such work stands against conventional wisdom because it must; even now, critics and outsiders continue to insist that Los Angeles and its environs are defined by superficiality. The Barbarian Nurseries makes the opposite case, pushing back against that false perception by portraying real people caught in the maelstrom of their daily lives.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
For Tobar, this means the Torres-Thompsons, a family of mixed ethnicity living in an Orange County enclave: parents Scott and Maureen (he is of Mexican heritage on his father’s side, and she is an Anglo from the Midwest) and their three young children. Completing the household is a Mexican housekeeper, Araceli, who has been pressed into additional duties, once performed by two other domestic workers, as the Great Recession has taken a deep financial toll on her employers.
“When there were three mexicanos working in this house,” Tobar writes, “they could fill the workday hours with banter and gossip. They made fun of el señor Scott and his very bad pocho accent when he tried to speak Spanish and tried to guess how it was that such an awkward and poorly groomed man had found himself paired with an ambitious American wife.” Now Araceli is on her own. Tobar highlights both her distance from the couple and her centrality to the family by writing from her perspective as well as those of Maureen and Scott. This creates a vivid narrative triangulation that is essential to The Barbarian Nurseries’ nuanced weave.
Tobar is a masterful storyteller, and his writing is propulsive, especially after a fight between the adult Torres-Thompsons leaves Araceli to look after two of the couple’s children, with devastating effects. But his portrait of Southern California as a multilayered landscape is as important as it is compelling, challenging preconceptions of class and culture, assimilation and identity, and how they operate. The Torres-Thompsons are a success story…until everything goes wrong. Beneath Tobar’s unflinching eye, The Barbarian Nurseries becomes a novel that is bigger than the sum of its parts, an exploration of the racial, economic, and social divides of Southern California, a territory in which everyone seems alienated from everyone else and no one can say, exactly, who they are.•