Lonely, desperate, obsessive characters inform the stories in Barba’s latest collection.
Barba (Such Small Hands, 2017, etc.), an acclaimed Spanish writer, is a master of the novella. Shorter than a novel, longer than a story, the novella is an underused form in American fiction. That’s unfortunate because, done right, it’s as exacting and harrowing as anything else you’ll come across. Needless to say, Barba does it right. His most recent book to appear in English contains four novellas. The characters they describe are destructive, lonely, obsessive. In one, a teenage girl, desperate to disappear, becomes anorexic; in another, a newly married man gives himself over to training for a marathon to the exclusion of everything else. They’re each consumed by the need to gain control over their own bodies. In Nocturne, which opens the book, a 56-year-old man takes up with a 21-year-old boy but can’t escape the fear that the boy will leave him. Like the marathoner and the anorexic girl, what he yearns for is a way to control his own desire, to overcome it entirely. Descent, which closes out the book, describes a trio of grown siblings and their tyrannical mother, who has fallen down and broken her hip. But as with the other stories, a plot synopsis doesn’t do Barba justice. These plots are deceptively simple. What’s not simple are the characters themselves, the ways that they struggle, and yearn, and fall down. Barba’s not eager to help them back up. There are no happy endings here, no false resolutions. Instead, we get the uneasy, unsettling mysteries we get in our everyday lives.
A gorgeous, fully realized collection in which each novella can be appreciated on its own as well as in concert with the others.