This breath-taking, impeccably-paced novel tells the story of Guille, a sensitive young boy who wishes (for very good reasons involving his absent mother, flying, and a magic word) to be Mary Poppins when he grows up, and of Guille’s relationships with the people around him: his father Manuel, schoolteacher Sonia, counselor María and best friend Nazia. As the story unfolds, we find layers upon layers of the ways in which adults and children try to protect one another. Palomas moves back and forth among four voices (those of Guille, Manuel, Sonia and María) in a gentle, unhurried exploration of the “special” qualities of Guille, an exemplary pupil who loves books and stories and has formed a close friendship with a Pakistani immigrant girl named Nazia. Palomas’ treatment of his theme (the desire of family members and friends to protect one another) is innovative, and his use of the child’s voice is unique, spot-on and delicately haunting.
From the image of Manuel sitting in front of a dark computer screen (while allegedly emailing his wife) to the letters that Guille’s mother (as a stewardess based in Dubai) supposedly mails her son early every Thursday morning to Nazia’s struggles with the Spanish language (including her despair over the not-exactly-Spanish magic word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) to María’s realization, through Guille’s drawings, of the gulf that lies between the boy’s knowledge and what the adults think he knows, Un Hijo explores the limitations of all our forms of communication. Much of the beauty of this novel lies in Guille’s child-like yet nuanced use and understanding of language – including “that long magic word you use when you don’t know what to say, and that you sing.” For example, after Nazia’s family forbids her to speak with Guille, the two of them use post-it notes to communicate; those assembled scraps of dialogue allow their teacher to finally grasp the particular peril Nazia faces. Likewise, by piecing together Guille’s words, stories and pictures, María eventually helps Manuel realize that he is not protecting Guille from a painful truth, and that on the contrary the young boy has been carefully protecting his own father.
Gradually the father begins to understand his son’s experience, and the book’s climactic scene describes Manuel walking onto a school stage, helping Guille with his Mary Poppins costume and even accepting a piece of that costume himself. In the book’s closing passage, we see father and child walking down the street together: “On the right, a tall ungainly figure with a straw hat and a flower on top of it. On the left, a very small figure, with a skirt and ankle boots, moving slowly toward the light like two parts of the same woman.” The two of them are beginning to move forward – without Guille’s mother but with the magical spirit of Mary Poppins.
I came away from Un Hijo with the exhilarating sense that the voices of Guille, Manuel, Sonia and María would all translate gracefully and smoothly into English. The book contains no references that would confuse or alienate English-language readers; in fact, the cultural references employed to describe the world of childhood are integrated beautifully in a way that feels quite universal. For example, the book opens with Guille listing his classmates’ answers to the teacher’s prompt of “WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP”: “Three soccer players for Barcelona, two for Madrid, one for Manchester, and one Andrés Iniesta; Six Rafael Nadals; Two very tall models; One princess (Nazia); One rich doctor; Three Beyoncés, One Batman; One videogame spaceship pilot; Two presidents of the world (the Rosón twins), One of those famous ladies that are on TV at night; One veterinarian for big dogs; One winner in the La Voz Kids TV contest; one Olympic world champion.” And, of course, one Mary Poppins.
Palomas’ novel is rich in such gloriously and deceptively simple bits of narration. If I had been able to put this book down for any length of time while reading it, I would have felt compelled to start translating immediately!