Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres


We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. "We Wanted More"
With his short, 128 page debut coming-of-age novel We the Animals, Justin Torres packs a powerful punch.  This is one of those little books that I had in my queue of electronics books to read last year, and didn't get to until December. Once finished, I was sorry I didn't get to it earlier.

Where do I begin? Do I summarize the story first? No. I'll begin by giving you my impressions of the book itself. There's such velocity and power in the narration that it's tough to put this short book down for even one minute. The characters in this story are so rich and vibrant that they jump off the pages and the reader can't help but want to go on to know how the story ends. Torres' sparse writing style, like negative space in a painting used to emphasize shade and color, is highly effective, as what is not said is just as powerful as what is written.

The story is about three little boys, three brothers who are basically raising themselves as their mother works the evening shift and sleeps during the day, while their Paps is in and out of their lives. Their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is white, and the relationship between these parents is volatile, unstable, sometimes loving, confusing and ultimately traumatizing. Their parents are originally from Brooklyn but they live in upstate New York where families like theirs are not the norm.
"This is your heritage," he said, as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and project in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe, grabbing another beer from the fridge and raising it to drink, his head back, still dancing, still stepping and snapping perfectly in time. "Heritage"
The brothers grow up almost as a unit, with wants and needs that they scrimp and scrape to find on their own. There's a self-absorbing love within the family unit that keeps them in a fierce sort of protective vacuum for years. They grow up learning how to avoid their parents' battles, their father's belt, how to tiptoe while their mother sleeps during the day, making up their own games and getting into mischief as a unit. Torres effectively conveys joy, as well as the dysfunction in the boys' lives through their games, whether they are flying trash kites, smashing tomatoes or pretending to be "the magic of God."

As the story quickly moves along and the brothers grow in the midst of a chaotic household, physically and psychologically abused by self-absorbed parents, they begin to see beneath the surface of the fights and into the real dysfunction that permeates their family. The brothers' relationship begins to splinter ["When we were brothers..."], and although the two older brothers remain close, our young narrator feels more and more like an outsider, separate, alienated. As the story races to its climactic ending to uncover the reasons behind the boy's alienation, the story gains speed and by its conclusion the reader is left breathless and more than a little heartbroken.

The story is sectioned off into vignettes or short stories narrated in the first person point of view by the youngest brother. The narration is powerful, the sections are short and to the point with a sparse prose that makes We the Animals a quick, if powerful read. Is the book perfect? Of course not. There is a section at the end of the book where the point of view shifts to the third person, distancing the reader from the most poignant and heartbreaking moment in the story. Whether the author's purpose was to place that distance there or not, the abrupt change in perspective broke the spell I was under and interrupted the immediacy and urgency of that first point of view perspective that is so effectively used up to that particular point.

We the Animals by Justin Torres is a unique coming-of-age story that will leave you breathless with its content and speed. This is a heartbreakingly memorable story and one I highly recommend.

Category: Literary Fiction/LGBT
Publisher/Released: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/August 30, 2011 - Kindle Ed.
Grade: B+

Visit Justin Torres here.

5 comments:

  1. It sounds interesting. not sure my style though. And I thought you already reviewed this one LOL.

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  2. Hey Nath! This is an awesome book. And lol, no... I mentioned it, because it made such an impact on me when I read it back in December, but I didn't review it. I've had the bones for this review sitting on draft since then. :D

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  3. Wonderful review Hils. Isn't it amazing how a short novel can make such an emotional impact? My library has this one so I'm going to make a point to find time to read it.

    I might pass it to the teen first and see what she thinks. She's a more of a fantasy reader but she might like this too.

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  4. Hey Hilcia, interestijg review...I liked the idea, but if it's sad...but I think I might try it one day.
    ****

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  5. Leslie, short novels can pack as much, and sometimes more than longer ones, it all depends on writing style and format. This one certainly made an impact on me!

    I would read it first before passing it on to your teenager, depending on age. Strong subject matter. :)

    Hey Sonia! It's an excellent story. I love the format and the writing style in this book. I read the first page and couldn't put it down until that last page was turned! The interesting thing about it? You have no idea where it's going until the end... it's not the HEA type of book. It's Literary Fiction, very good Lit Fic. :)

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