The Barbarian Nurseries, By Hector Tobar

Eye-opening travels across borders with the home help
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The Independent Culture

Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the LA Times, has written extensively about the Latino experience in America. Now, with his second novel, he returns to the seismic divides of Southern California with a dense and dark portrait of indentured drudgery.

Propelling the narrative is a strained marriag. Scott is a Stanford-educated software millionaire, his wife, Maureen, an elegant Mid-westerner. With the help of three mexicanos, a nanny, a housekeeper and a gardener, they're raising three young children. Scott, himself the son of a Mexican father, seems to have few qualms watching Pepe toiling over the family's tropical garden, or paying Guadalupe to tidy away his childrens' extensive library of pop-up books and Scandinavian building blocks.

Early on in the novel, hit by the recession, Scott and Maureen are forced to dismiss their domestic work-force, retaining only the services of their super-efficient housekeeper, Araceli. While seemingly inscrutable to her employers, Araceli emerges as a tough, complicated character. It's Araceli who finds herself in charge when after a heated marital spat , Maureen and Scott part company. After four days without hearing from either parent, Araceli sets off with her needy charges in search of their grandfather, Torres Snr, in a distant LA suburb. When the parents return to an empty house they panic – police helicopters are dispatched and borders closed.

As the action broadens so does the novel's cast to include politicians, social workers and lawyers. Avoiding the usual cliches, Tobar portrays his character's inner lives in nuanced detail. But despite the ambition of this panoramic work, Tobar is at his best at small, telling scenes. Towards the close of the book we see Maureen on her own personal border control, battling an army of "pulsating" ants.

Tobar's hard-hitting novel drills deep into LA's hidden social and racial strata, and explores what happens when these carefully constructed lives implode.