Jul/Aug 2012 Reviews & Interviews

We the Animals: A Novel

We the Animals: A Novel
Justin Torres.
Granta . 2012. 128 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84708 3951.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Enter the world of a seven-year-old boy growing up in a poor family, newcomers in upstate New York, not white trash—similar but different. Ma white, Paps Puerto Rican, aged 14 and 16 when they took a bus to Texas to marry. Both workers—night shifts and casual jobs, and with three boys, wild, unruly but bonded to each other—"we were brothers, we were Musketeers"—and growing older.

We share the youngest boy's strange perceptions of relationships, his view of the family, innocent but full of information which suggests to the reader a disordered life in which he and his brothers exist like untamed animals, uncontrolled, fighting, stealing, learning to survive, learning about people, beaten but loved.

Then, a growing awareness of difference, the boy dances and his father, watching, thinks "Goddamn, I got me a pretty one". The brothers are exposed to pornography, and this and imagination work on the boy strongly. Suddenly he is grown up, fantasizing, experimenting, seeking sexual adventures.

Finally, there is a diary, exposure, rejection, guilt and madness. But is it real madness? Or is it just that the family make it look that way? There are fragments about a cage at this father's work, a curious episode in an old man's garden. Are these significant? Values, relationships—there is so much to think about for the boy and for us.

The brief chapters move through half-a-dozen years of growing up with immediacy and intensity. There is love, fear, uncertainty and resolution, and there is a freshness to the writing and a simplicity which makes the boy's thoughts and feelings vivid and his awareness of his difference and his fierce animal anger understandable.

The final chapters, his father's tenderness, his brothers' memories and care, his own incarceration and his caging in an inner world of fantasy and dreams—a zoo in which he hopes, finally, to stand upright amongst his fellows—are disturbing yet full of hope but tinged with dream-like madness which may or may not be real.

This is a most unusual and impressive first novel from a young writer who is already attracting literary awards.


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