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Review: We the Animals

Laughter and love mix with hardship and havoc to define family in debut novel

En español | Urgency. It’s a quality that thrusts a reader through Justin Torres’s slim 125-page debut novel and is refreshing given its absence from much contemporary fiction.

— Photo: Marisa Zanganeh

We the Animals opens with an unnamed narrator, the youngest boy in a family of five, introducing the reader to his family in upstate New York: his mother, father and two older brothers. Times are tough, and the boys are hungry — for food, laughter and love. The mother works graveyard shifts at a brewery and often confuses night and day, telling the boys to brush their teeth and get into their pj's in the middle of the afternoon and threatening the boys when they contradict her. At his best, the Puerto Rican father cooks while dancing to Tito Puente with the boys, but at his worst bruises the mother and abandons the family for days.

See also: Latino Books Into Movies Awards.

Like a pack, these boys stick together to survive family hardship while unleashing their own particular brand of havoc. As if to underscore their unruly solidarity, the narrator describes the brothers as a “three-torsoed beast” and often narrates from the plural “we” point of view of the title. But as the novel progresses and the narrator reveals his true nature, the
three-torsoed “we” becomes a severed “I,” and the reader understands that life for this family will never be the same. Interspersed with all the heartache, however, are moments brimming with hard-won tenderness as this family fights to love one another — with the literal and figurative cuts and bruises to prove it.

With vignette-like chapters and coming-of-age concerns, comparisons to Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street are inevitable. Like that modern classic, these 19 chapters add up to more than the sum of their parts. There are no easy realizations, and no tidy conclusions. Intimate in its telling, We the Animals rings with truth.

In this interview with AARP VIVA, the 31-year-old Torres — a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently a Stanford University Wallace Stegner Fellow — acknowledges the semiautobiographical nature of the book while making important distinctions between fact and fiction. That Torres was able to mine the difficult terrain of his childhood and produce this well-crafted gem of a debut novel is one more reason for readers to take note of this new writer and book.

Next: Interview with Justin Torres. >>

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