Los Angeles is a city perhaps better known to the wider world through films rather than books, but Hector Tobar's thrilling new novel may go some way to redress the balance.
The Barbarian Nurseries (Sceptre, October), is set in contemporary LA—and yet in two different worlds, as it illuminates the tensions between the wealthy middle-class and the immigrant workforce it relies on. A state-of-the-State novel if you will, with the scope and cracking pace of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities.
In the novel, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson live with their three young children in a fancy gated community of the type beloved by affluent, middle-class Californians. The smooth running of their lives in the suburb of Orange County is only made possible by a Mexican staff of three; a gardener, a nanny and a housekeeper. But the financial pressure of huge mortgage payments and private school fees mean the gardener and nanny are sacked, leaving only Araceli, the taciturn house-keeper, to bring order to the household.
Following a furious argument over money, Scott—the son of Latin American immigrants who has "made good"—and Maureen both storm out of the marital home. Considering herself the victim and wanting to let her husband ponder his actions, Maureen decides to spend a few days in a mountain spa with her baby daughter. She leaves her sons Brandon and Keenan behind, blithely assuming that live-in Araceli will look after them until Scott returns from work.
But Scott fails to return that night, or the next, or the next. Running out of money and with no idea of her employers' whereabouts, Araceli finds herself in a difficult situation. Fearful that notifying the authorities will result in the spectre of foster care for the boys, and deportation for her (she has no green card), Araceli makes a decision which will have huge consequences. She takes the boys on a journey through Los Angeles to find the only other relative she knows of, Scott's Mexican father, using an address found on the back of an old photograph. So begins a march across the city on foot, buses and trains through the poorer, immigrant neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.
When Maureen and Scott do finally return, they find an empty house. Horrified, they report the children missing. In the blink of an eye the media have fixated on an "abduction" story, and Araceli and the boys become the focus of an intense search as the police, social services and the justice system get involved—and everyone has their own political axe to grind.
So it's a deeply political novel, and one which was originally inspired by a political act—the 1994 State of California proposal "to ban undocumented immigrants from public schools, hospitals, those kind of essential services" Tobar explains, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. The Barbarian Nurseries grew out of a desire to respond to the "often very heated, often very xenophobic rhetoric directed at immigrants" he says.
An immigrant tale
Tobar is himself the son of Guatemalan immigrants, born and raised in Los Angeles. A journalist for the LA Times for nearly 20 years, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of the 1992 riots, so he knows the city inside out. The Barbarian Nurseries gives the reader a powerful sense of a Los Angeles divided along ethnic and class lines—particularly the journey made by Araceli and the boys, which forms the crux of the novel.
One of the many things that makes Los Angeles interesting, Tobar thinks, is the contrast between the old and the new, and in the novel "we travel from this brand new suburban neighbourhood where Maureen and Scott live to the heart of Los Angeles; the place where [the city] was founded. There are all these layers of history, and of hurt and pain and violence that has taken place over decades, and which Brandon and Keenan see with innocent eyes."
"Araceli really is my alter-ego," he says. "Araceli is someone who has tried to go to university, she has tried to become an artist and instead she is trapped in this position where everyone sees her as a servant, as a domestic. To me, to be a person of Latin American heritage in southern California, it's almost inescapable that people will see you that way."
He tells me about a recent personal experience; while shopping in a supermarket, smartly dressed, he was approached by a woman asking if he worked there. He laughs at the memory, incredulous and resigned at the same time—"What is it about me that makes you think I work here?" he asked her, but now answers his own question: "The colour of my skin identifies me as a member of the servant class."
But he's fiercely proud of his roots. "I have a profound love for my home town," he says. "I'm very honoured that my book has found a home in the UK, because I wrote it hoping to explain Los Angeles and California to the world."
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- Jane Green: "I'm now writing about women in their 40s. I don't think I'm a chick"
- Harriet Lane | "I've lost so much because of this autoimmune thing—not just some sight, but a really enjoyable career and a confident sense of the future"
- Rachel Joyce | "I do think radio drama is a brilliant way of learning, because it's such an imaginative medium."
- Deon Meyer | "When I write, I am very conscious of time, because it's such a wonderful mechanism for creating suspense"