Héctor Tobar Tells Our Shattered Story

In this week's newsletter: The Barbarian Nurseries repeatedly upends our expectations as it provides a nuanced, dramatic critique of ethnic tensions, inequality, our immigration system, and xenophobia.

héctor tobar
Dustin Snipes

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has a coda: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” In telling a story that sharply criticizes inequality and power as it manifests in India, the novel swells with a radical number of perspectives, never content with a single viewpoint. Similarly, Héctor Tobar’s complex The Barbarian Nurseries is at its most intriguing when it slips out of a controlled domestic sphere into shifting points of view.

Araceli, the Mexican housekeeper on whom the novel centers, is with a few young strangers, Mexicanas and Chicanas, with whom she’s been staying, when a media circus is kicked off. She has taken the two boys from the house she cleans to find their grandfather because their parents, her bosses, Maureen Thompson and Scott Torres, have inadvertently abandoned them. Not knowing where they are, the parents have reported Araceli to the police. Upon seeing the news, one of the women Araceli has newly met, Griselda, remarks that she needs to leave the gathering; she could be detained if she stays.

Araceli is shocked to learn that Griselda has been undocumented since she was little. She thinks,

“Here was a young woman who spoke about music and boyfriends in English, who was obviously educated in the freewheeling, free-girl-thinking of U.S. schools, a privilege imparted to the country’s brightest daughters, announcing solemnly that she was an indocumentada.”

Araceli’s earlier perceptions of Griselda are called into question. What might seem a shared ethnic background to outsiders does not present the insight we might imagine it would. Like everyone else, Araceli has her own biases, and they tinge each of her encounters.

Maureen, however, holds perceptions of others that render her blind to a degree that could be played for laughs were its consequences not so awful within the novel. For instance, the purpose of planting what she calls “la petite rain forest” is to “create the illusion that these banana trees and tropical flowers were the beginning of a jungle plain where savage tribes lived and vines swallowed the metal shells of downed airplanes.”

When she discovers that Araceli has been making unsettling art, “monstrosities,” out of the discarded objects of the Torres-Thompson home, it is shocking to her. Although she is a volunteer art teacher at her son’s school, Maureen is unable to conceptualize Araceli as an artist with her own inner life, her own vision.

The power imbalance between them requires Araceli to understand Maureen better than Maureen understands her. But Tobar undercuts a reader’s easy reaction to Maureen’s attitude toward her housekeeper: when Deputy Ernie Suarez goes into the room as part of his investigation of Araceli’s disappearance and sees a magazine image of a baby coming out of a woman’s vagina, he responds, “Jeez, that’s really sick.”

As she mulls Araceli’s disappearance with her sons, Maureen thinks,

“I have allowed this foreign mystery to float from one room of my home to the next, leaning into the vacuum cleaner…and may have placed my sons in danger, in exchange for her chicken mole, for the light and tart seasoning of her black beans, and for the passion we share for the sanitizing power of chlorine.”

While we’re inside her viewpoint, we aren’t meant to sympathize with Maureen, so much as mock and judge her priorities: “Foreign mystery”? And who would identify chlorine among their passions? Whose grasp on another human being who had lived in her home for years would be so upsettingly shallow, so centered on that person’s function rather than her humanness?

And yet we know these are real power imbalances within our society. In California, we’ve seen xenophobic rhetoric on the news and in public spaces for decades. We know how cruel our immigration systems can be; still, they stand unreformed. A reporter is not able to fully reveal the complicated inner lives of the people involved in controversies; a reporter is supposed to stand outside and be objective. Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, but the novel form hands him a wider range of tools: Point-of-view shifts. Character. Symbols. Less transparent prose. Freytag’s pyramid.

Tobar tells our shattered story by entering the minds of the affluent and those who remain invisible to them. The people who clean their houses and take care of their kids so that they can get richer. In the novel, readers are given entry points into everyone and everything in service of a political and social question: Who are the real barbarians here?•

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


foreclosure sign


Novelist Elizabeth Gonzalez James considers the struggles with money that serve as a catalyst for the Torres-Thompsons’ problems in The Barbarian Nurseries. —Alta

barbarian nurserie, héctor tobar
Picador USA


Novelist Aatif Rashid examines Héctor Tobar’s literary technique of moving in and out of many perspectives to create a complex tapestry of Southern California in The Barbarian Nurseries. —Alta

zero zone, scott o'connor
Counterpoint Press


Chris Daley talks to Scott O’Connor, the author of Zero Zone, about California, openness to new age cults, and art that helps us attend to the present. —Alta

december book picks


The last month of 2021 brings, among other books, an exhibit catalog that reveals artists’ reactions to a disturbing finding about police, nonfiction about sustainable urban spaces, and a novel about a mother and son. —Alta

percival everett


Prolific novelist Percival Everett has a fascinating conversation with James Yeh about readers, not writers, as the arbiters of a book’s meaning; training horses; animals; rejection of rules; and the West. —Believer

peter mishler
Literary Hub


Tongo Eisen-Martin discusses using San Francisco to examine late-stage imperialism. He recommends disagreeing with yourself and deploying meditation techniques when writing poetry.Literary Hub

california book club bookplates

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Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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