[Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2011]

We the Animals, Justin Torres’ slim debut novel, begins with a chapter entitled “We Wanted More.” This is how I felt at the end of the novel, a bracing, rapid, and yet dreamy adventure through the childhood of three brothers. Initially, the narrator, a sensitive young boy, and his two rambunctious older brothers meld together, illustrating the cohesion of their shared identities as half-Puerto Rican, half-white children, and more importantly, as brothers.

But like the clever youngest brother in a fairy tale, the narrator slowly, very slowly, grows apart from his brothers and the fierce, chaotic love of his parents. Their family isn’t wealthy, and the book bluntly illustrates their financial struggle from the narrator’s perspective, focusing on his parents’ unsteady marriage, and intermittent employment. Their father’s periodic absence and mother’s occasional negligence, prompted always by her own sadness, seem both terribly sad and also liberating—the closeness of the brothers arises not only because they play parent to their mother often enough, but also because, free from much parental oversight, their lives race through an exhilarating childhood world of mayhem and trespass: trash kites and panhandling and play.

This world, through which the reader all-too-quickly passes, is etched cleanly and sparsely, and nonetheless seems complete. Description, dialogue, and the narrator’s own youthful viewpoint create a realm almost tangible, both in the squalor of the low points and the beauty of their family’s wary intimacy. Torres’ writing is poetic and colloquial, and never heavy, even at the most devastating moments, when predicting loss. Somehow, even when happiness is utterly absent, We the Animals springs above and ahead, incandescent till the end.


 

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