Childhood in all its pain and glory: We the Animals

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It’s done! The first book of 2013 has now been read and I’ve included a short review below. I’m going to try and keep these under 500 words and I’ll highlight what I thought was interesting, what I didn’t like, what I liked, etc. I also include a recommendation for other readers about the book at the end of the review.

 

I chose Justin Torres’s We the Animals because of the first few lines that my friend J read to me. I quote them here because they are hauntingly beautiful:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowl; 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 were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” (1)

I have four brothers and I won’t hide the fact that these lines called to mind my own childhood. Torres’ 2012 novella is a hauntingly beautiful piece of fiction. It is terse, divided into small chapters usually running no more than a few pages. It is episodic, chronicling the lives of three young mixed-blood youth of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. Their lives are raw and filled with the smoldering pain of poverty as their parents fight, work dead end jobs, and try to escape the hopelessness of chronic poverty and violence. The novella is set in upstate New York, somewhere north of Syracuse is my best guess, and it reminded me of my own childhood in a small town in Ontario. The three brothers roam their neighbourhood, kings or conquerors, all while trying to make sense of their home life. It is, in many ways, a bildungsroman as the three brothers come to maturity within the confine of a mere 125 pages.

What makes this novella particularly interesting from a technical standpoint is the narrative voice. For much of the book, it is narrated not so much in the first person as in a kind of shared first person. As the section above shows, it is narrated by we, the three brothers, with occasional individual comments. This technique begins to unravel near the end of the book as the brothers come into the final climax of the novel. The tie-in between the narrative structure and plotline is fitting and makes the novel a beautiful work from both an aesthetic and a technical standpoint. I would highly recommend Torres’ work for the narrative voice alone. While I worried that it would fail him at some point, it does not and you quickly become accustomed to seeing the brothers not so much as individual characters but instead as a kind of three-headed beast as they are called at one point.

I would highly recommend Torres’ novella to any looking for a good, short read. It is violent and blunt, but it is also achingly sweet in the way that it captures the intensity and wonder of childhood.

 

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. Print.

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