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The Barbarian Nurseries, By Héctor Tobar

This hypnotic nanny is no Mary Poppins

Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson live in a tropical paradise almost unimaginable to a UK reader coming across them just as the brittle autumn weather starts to bite.

This Californian world of magnificent gated communities and luscious landscaped gardens seems so very opulent...until the rot starts to set in. And it is not long before it does.

Despite their beautiful family and elegant home – both of which are ably taken care of by a staff of three Mexicans – all is not well with the Torres-Thompsons. It turns out that not even the gates on the estate can keep away the realities of the economic downturn: they're broke. Three of the staff are sacked and, in an instant, reliable housekeeper Araceli Ramirez finds that her workload has doubled while her salary has remained static.

In the days that follow, her employers have an argument so explosive that they each storm out of the house in fury. Maureen takes their baby daughter and heads to a spa, hoping to teach Scott a lesson he won't forget. She doesn't account for him already having planned to leave. Soon, Araceli is left taking care of the two older sons with no idea when her bosses will return. Running out of money, unable to drive, and getting no answers from the emergency numbers she calls, Araceli does what she thinks is best: she takes the boys across Los Angeles to try to find their Mexican grandfather.

What follows is a journey through downtown LA in all its grimy splendour, as Araceli – who had recently heard other nannies swapping playground horror stories of children taken into foster care – does her best to reunite the children with a relative. Yet instead of being congratulated for her efforts, when the parents eventually return to an empty house and accusations of kidnap are bandied around, she becomes the eye of a media storm.

This is Araceli's story, and The Barbarian Nurseries is a novel that is entirely dependent on our relationship with her. Mercifully, she makes the journey worth our while. Referred to as "Madame Weirdness" by her employers, she is as inscrutable in the workplace as she is fiery out of it. As hypnotic as she is observant and as sympathetic as she is frosty, she is a diamond of a character.

Sadly, few of the others have anything close to her three-dimensional sparkle. As Los Angeles takes centre stage in the story, an increasing number of its inhabitants start to feel like devices rather than people – especially held to Araceli's foil. Whereas, at the start of the book, a simple description of a bus stop spoke volumes, The Barbarian Nurseries soon starts to feel like a somewhat indulgent newspaper column. While both Araceli and LA itself both feel immediate, powerful and emotive, Héctor Tobar's attempts to make points about each of them ultimately become exhausting. This is a shame because The Barbarian Nurseries is so, so close to being a great novel.

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