One of the books coming out in the UK in 2012 I was really excited about before the year even began was ‘We The Animals’, a debut novel by Justin Torres. I had heard this mentioned on a couple of book blogs in the USA and raved about by Ann Kingman on the podcast Books on the Nightstand on a few occasions. There seemed to be a real buzz about it, and one created by readers not just publicists. I was actually so excited about this book based on the buzz and recommendations that I nearly bought it from America back in the autumn. However I was lucky enough to get a rather advance proof from the publishers here instead and I can finally tell to you all about it (after having read it again) now it has been released here.
‘We The Animals’ is on first glances a ‘coming of age tale’, which I should admit from the start I am really not a fan of, as our unnamed narrator grows up and tells the story of his upbringing in upstate New York from the age of seven until he leaves home, or the nest as we might call it. Only if we use the nest analogy, this would be more a nest of vipers than a nest of fluffy ducklings because as we read on we begin to spot there are tensions and underlying unease in this family and there is an almost claustrophobic bond that the family, though it is even more so between the three children, all brothers, have created with one another.
‘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 The Animals’ is not simply a coming of age tale it is also, if a rather concerning image, an honest and believable portrayal of a family of our time but mostly it is the tale of someone coming to terms with individuality. This is why I admitted it so much, it made me ask a lot of questions. When do you start to realise your parents might not be the idealised perfect people you have created in your head? When do sibling rivalries begin and the bonds of brotherhood get severed? How does conflicting parental culture (in this case white and Puerto Rican) affect your bearings on the world? There is a lot discussed in a book which sits just on the borders where novel and novella meet at 144 pages long, though don’t let that fool you into thinking that there is no plot or that this novel doesn’t have a sense of the epic about it as its quite the opposite.
Using almost short story like chapters (and they even have titles like a short story collection would) we are given snapshots from our unnamed narrators childhood; this to me was one of the most brilliant things Torres does with this book. Through initially naive memories, though as the narrator gets older they get a little more understanding, we as adult readers can build up a bigger picture of what is happening in this rather dysfunctional family. Our narrator might not understand why his mother, who works in the local brewery overnight, might sometimes be covered in bruises or unable to get out of bed, or just what happens between the parents while the boys are taking a bath. Yet as adult readers we do understand and so we join the dots and fill in the blanks to make a much darker picture than our narrator describes. I liked this feeling of an author and a reader working together and I have not seen it done as deftly a Torres does for some time.
Without giving too much more away, and I really don’t want to because I read something that did and took some of the impact away for me at the end, there is a sudden gear change towards the final pages of the book and we are left with, yet more, very interesting questions. Does our childhood create who we are in all senses and can the types of childhood we have, who our parents are etc effect how we become individuals? As a reader I closed the final pages of Torres’ book and had to just sit and think about all the questions it raised, hence why I was glad to go back and have a second read through.
‘We The Animals’ epitomises, to me at least, the power that a short novel can have in the right hands. Torres greats this claustrophobic world where the reader sees more than meets the eye, and yet through the eyes of the narrator there is always an innocence sense of hope, only hitting us harder when we see that vision start to fall away or even worse are torn down. To describe something as short yet epic seems a contradiction, yet read this book and you will see what I mean, you will also see why the buzz around Torres is so justified.
You can see Will’s much more articulate review here, though it does mention the ending a little (it wasn’t the review that gave it all away for me though). You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing Justin Torres about ‘We The Animals’ on the latest episode of The Readers here.