Sceptre, £17.99, 426pp. £14.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Barbarian Nurseries, By Héctor Tobar

 

The problem with State of the Nation novels is that, if you're going to be fair to all your characters and not just satirise them into the ground, and you're also hoping for a decent amount of dramatic intensity, then you're going to have a very delicate task in terms of making things happen.

In the case of Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, we have, on the one side, rich white Californians Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson and, on the other, their Mexican housekeeper Araceli. The novel's central event is Araceli taking the couple's two pre-teen boys on an ill-advised journey into the depths of LA to look for their grandfather, after the two parents abscond from home for four days, following a major row, each thinking the other is in charge. When Scott and Maureen come home to an empty house, they think the boys have been abducted, and panic.

Tobar clearly wants to avoid demonising either party. He makes it clear that Scott and Maureen acted in the heat of the moment, worn down by money problems, while poor Araceli isn't even supposed to be looking after the children, the dedicated nanny having been "let go". But this means that the author has to make sure that everything that can go wrong, does so: everyone's mobile phones are either left at home, out of battery or non-existent, and Araceli doesn't even think to leave a note. Each element, on its own, is not implausible; taken together, it is scarcely credible.

This is a shame, because what follows is as pacy and informative about the state of America as you would expect from a journlaist who won a Pulitzer for coverage of the LA riots. Once the boys are safely returned, the family and illegal immigrant housekeeper get picked up by the wider media-political circus. They are reported on television, blogged about, fundraised for, and threatened, variously, with jail, deportation and removal of their children into care. Here Tobar is in total control of his material, and brilliantly deploys his wide supporting cast, from the glitziest Latino TV star through various politicians, diplomats and lawyers to the lowliest child protection officer.

It is the earlier sections of the novel that are most likely to grate, where Tobar depicts the supposedly idyllic life of the Torres-Thompson household – perhaps with more than one eye on the success of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. There is the heavy symbolism of the family's uncared-for rainforest garden, and an excess of detail, smothered in a kind of snooty generality, that leads us to a world where children play with "interlocking Danish bricks" and read "a thirteen-volume series about the fantastic misadventures of three orphaned siblings who retain their innocent spirits and optimistic outlook" as they wander "through a cruel adult world." Rather than, say, Lego and Lemony Snicket. Look past this, and the novel succeeds.

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