Portrait of a Society in ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

Héctor Tobar uses shifting points of view during his characters’ odyssey through Los Angeles that bring the city to life.

hector tobar, barbarian nurseries
Dustin Snipes

At first, Héctor Tobar’s sprawling The Barbarian Nurseries seems like a traditional third-person narrative told from the points of view of a few key characters, whose domestic squabbles Tobar intends to critique: computer programmer Scott Torres; his wife, Maureen Thompson; their young children, Brandon and Keenan; and their Mexican maid, Araceli, the novel’s protagonist. In the third chapter, however, during a party the family is hosting to celebrate Keenan’s birthday, Tobar slips into the stylistic technique that will eventually become the signature narrative element of the novel’s second half: the perspective briefly shifts from Araceli and the family to one of the guests, Carla Wallace-Zuberi, a colleague of Scott’s who describes herself as progressive and who glancingly judges Araceli. “The only thing this Mexican woman accomplishes by pulling her hair back,” she thinks, “is to establish a look of severity: maybe that’s the point.”

Later in the chapter, a similar shift in POV happens with another guest, Sasha Avakian, who likewise notices and judges Araceli (though unlike Carla, his impressions are complicated by feelings of attraction). “That woman looks miserable and lonely,” he thinks, “like someone forced to sit in a stranger’s room and listen to the silence for days, weeks, years.”

On the one hand, these moments are thematically significant, since much of the novel is about how middle- and upper-class Americans judge women like Araceli, the Mexican maids and servants who work in their midst. But beyond the thematic significance, these moments stand out because they preview a technique Tobar will use with increasing frequency as the novel progresses, especially once Araceli takes the children through Los Angeles to find their grandfather.

In narrating this journey, Tobar tells parts of the story from the perspectives of minor characters who encounter Araceli and the children, even if only briefly: there is Gus Dimitri, the octogenarian volunteer at Union Station who gives Araceli directions; there is Judge Robert Adalian, a jurist at the Los Angeles Municipal Traffic Court who notices the three of them on his morning commute; there is Tomás, the orphaned boy who befriends Brandon and Keenan when they stop in downtown Los Angeles; there is Victorino Alamillo, a resident of Huntington Park whose son is serving in Kandahar and who is hanging an American flag on his house; there is Nadia Bashir, a UCLA student who lives in that same neighborhood.

Each of these characters appears in a limited capacity in the plot, and we receive only quick sketches of their lives and brief immersions into their points of view before returning to our main characters. Through them, however, Tobar weaves a complex tapestry of Southern California and reflects on broader social forces like immigration and multiculturalism. Nadia, for example, in the face of her uncle’s optimism about the United States, notes that “there was an undercurrent of psychic violence to Huntington Park…alive underneath a façade of coexistence that was as fragile as the quiet that had miraculously enveloped the neighborhood this morning, interrupted only by the clack-clack of three outsiders walking past her bedroom window.” Giovanni Lozano, meanwhile, a blogger and political activist, sees Araceli as “an antidote, somehow, to all those sad stories of workplace raids and deportations,” someone who “stood for the sophisticated place he and his mostly American-born readers imagined deeper, urban Mexico to be…an event of history that had been dropped into [his] provincial corner of the planet.” His view of Araceli is notably different from Carla’s assessment of her at the beginning of the novel.

By part three, as the plot accelerates, these alternate perspectives dominate the novel. We get scenes from the eyes of police officers, journalists, lawyers, political activists, and even the mayor of Los Angeles. Ultimately, it’s the aggregate of these viewpoints that gives the novel its social power, since through them Tobar elevates his narrative beyond a simple morality tale about injustice and instead turns it into a representation of the diversity of Southern California. In this way, The Barbarian Nurseries is similar to the 19th-century social novels of writers like Charles Dickens, who in works like Bleak House similarly used a panoply of perspectives to paint a complex picture of Victorian London.

Against these glimmers of a broader world, Scott’s and Maureen’s perspectives feel claustrophobic, reflective of their affluent insularity and inability to see beyond their own small problems. Even Araceli, although fundamentally sympathetic, makes decisions that are hard to fully understand. Instead, it is characters playing bit parts with whom it is easiest to identify. Like us, they are simply witnesses to the unfolding drama, which plays out on their television screens and across the internet in an all-consuming media event, something to be debated, discussed, and analyzed, just as we often do with viral news stories today. In this way, these characters are like a contemporary Greek chorus, their collective voices underscoring the significance of everything we’re witnessing.•

Join us on December 16 at 5 p.m., when Tobar will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss The Barbarian Nurseries with your fellow California Book Club members.

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