‘As Affectionate As It Is Terrifying’: Critics on ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

Upon its release, critics praised Héctor Tobar’s novel for its sympathetic and complex portrayal of an undocumented woman. A decade later, the book remains as relevant as it was in 2011.

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When The Barbarian Nurseries was published a decade ago, I thought it might soon become a relic, an artifact from the intolerance of a bygone era,” Héctor Tobar writes in the 10th-anniversary version of his novel, now heralded as a modern classic. “No immigrant, real or imagined, would ever again suffer a misadventure like the one Araceli Ramírez endures in this book.”

Many of Tobar’s hopes—for a more tolerant country, for dramatic immigration reform and a legislated path to citizenship for undocumented people—failed to come true in the past decade. But his novel, which the California Book Club will discuss with him on December 16, remains a powerful addition to our national conversation about class and immigration.

When Tobar published The Barbarian Nurseries in 2011, he was already a decorated author and journalist. Years at the Los Angeles Times culminated in a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 riots following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.

Upon the release of The Barbarian Nurseries, book critics commended Tobar for his close attention to the inner motivations of his characters and the dexterity with which he flows from the thoughts of one character to those of another, often without a formal break. Richard Rayner of the Los Angeles Times noted that the author “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.” His characters span class, race, and gender.

The voice Tobar returns to most frequently is Araceli’s; she is a young Mexican woman and a domestic worker. “Much of the potency of The Barbarian Nurseries comes from our knowledge, as privileged readers, of Araceli’s thoughts and feelings, disclosures that bring forth some of its freshest imagery,” Rebecca Donner wrote in the New York Times. “Tobar’s portraits, acute and humane, render his characters intelligible. His illuminations become our recognitions.”

Critics also noted Tobar’s command over specific locations, media firestorms, and legal battles. The novel’s credibility is boosted by insights Tobar gained through his experiences as a journalist. In one scene, he boils a dramatic confrontation with a politician down to supply-chain issues. In another, he deftly traces a line from a press release to grandiose front-page news. As Donner put it, Tobar “writes with authority about the machinations of Orange County-versus-Los Angeles municipal politics, and exhibits a seismographic sensitivity to the tensions along the fault lines of his cultural terrain.”

The Barbarian Nurseries is constructed around the social and economic stratification between Los Angeles and Orange County. Critics commented that the book expresses equal parts admiration for the former and its diversity and cynicism about the sheltered, distant community of the latter, where Araceli’s employers reside. “In this ode to L.A., as affectionate as it is terrifying, Tobar’s position is clear: An exclusive enclave with vast ocean views is no less scary than the flats of South Central, its isolated inhabitants all the more alienated from each other and themselves,” Dinah Lenney summed up in the Washington Post.

Earlier this year, a decade after Tobar first published his novel, Picador reprinted it with an additional foreword, by Reyna Grande, a previous California Book Club author. Grande reflected on Araceli as a complex protagonist who served as one representative of undocumented people in the United States, and shared her hope for the country when she first read it. “It is heartbreaking to realize that the United States needs The Barbarian Nurseries as much as it needed it ten years ago. The book is as timely now as it was then, and its cultural importance remains; indeed, the story within these pages is one that North Americans need to hear and keep hearing,” she wrote. “This is a novel that must certainly be included in those California booklists.”•

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