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. - from We The Animals, page 1 -
Three young boys -- brothers -- grow up in a house of violence and passion. Their stomachs often ache with hunger. They throw their anger out into the world, then cling to each other while their parents fight and separate and come back together again. Their father, Paps, is a man of Puerto Rican heritage who wants his boys to understand where they come from; while the brothers try to see themselves as part of their father, but different from him, too.
"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 projects 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. - from We The Animals, page 10 -
Ma fights depression and takes to her bed, forgetting to care for her children or pay attention to them. Locked in a cycle of abuse, she seems powerless to change the course of her life, much less the lives of her kids.
She stopped sleeping in her bed and took to the couch instead, or the floor, or sometimes she slept at the kitchen table, with her head in one arm and the other arm dangling down toward the linoleum, where little heaps of cigarette butts and empty packs and ash piled up around her. - from We The Animals, page 30 -
Narrated in the sensitive and observant voice of the youngest brother, We The Animals is a powerful and disquieting novella about family, love, poverty, domestic violence and the quest to find one's way within the world. Justin Torres writes with compassion and uses poetic language to capture the day to day challenges that face his characters. Often dark and sad, the novella draws the reader into the bleak world of this family with its captivating prose.
During one poignant scene, the boys are being bathed by their father. As they splash and pretend to navigate "boats" through the shallow waters of their bath, the dark threat of violence is never far away.
After dinner he led us all to the bathtub, no bubbles, just six inches of gray water and our bare butts, our knees and elbows, and our three little dicks. Paps scrubbed us rough with a soapy washcloth. He dug his fingernails into our scalp as he washed our hair and warned us that if the shampoo got into our eyes, it was our own fault for squirming. We made moterboat voices, navigating bits of Styrofoam around toothpicks and plastic milk-cap islands, and we tried to be brave when he grabbed us; we tried not to flinch. - from We the Animals, page 44 -
It was moments like these where my heart felt like breaking for these children -- for all children who find themselves in homes like this, desperate for the love of their parents, frightened by the violence they do not understand, growing up in a world where fear and poverty and addiction are a daily occurrence.
As the story unfurls, it becomes apparent that this is a novella about individual identity. How are we formed? Do our families define who we become? Can we tear away from our heritage and our upbringing and find our own unique place in the world?
I was completely engrossed in this book. I read it in less than a day, then set it aside and lived with the words for nearly a week before being able to sort out my feelings for it. This is not the kind of story that is enjoyable. It is difficult, sad, and heartbreaking. It is the kind of book which is hard to forget. I found myself waking up in the morning and thinking about the characters, my heart compressing with empathy for them. Any author who is able to touch a reader this deeply is gifted.
Readers who wish to be transported by original and lyrical prose and those who love literary fiction, will want to experience Justin Torres' writing for themselves. Sharp, emotional, and darkly compelling, We the Animals is a brilliant first novel.
- Quality of Writing: Five stars
- Characters: Five stars
- Plot: Four stars
Overall Rating: Five stars
FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".