Few gifts are more welcome to the avid fiction reader than the discovery of a fresh, brilliantly written debut novel. Such is the case with We the Animals by Justin Torres, a coming-of-age story that unfolds in a series of linked short stories with settings in Brooklyn and upstate New York.
From the very first page the reader is captivated by poetic prose and engaging characters. The narrator is a nameless 7-year-old boy who opens up the world of his dynamic family: two older brothers (8 and 9) and two very young parents, a white and frail mother and a restless and sometimes violent Puerto Rican father. Money and regularly available food are scarce, yet there is no shortage of energy, angst and joy. Often using the first person plural, the young narrator explains that he and his siblings “. . . wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry.” “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
The boys are left alone to themselves much of the time. The mother works the grave-yard shift at a brewery and sleeps (sometimes inebriated) during the day. The father is in and out of work and is occasionally away enjoying liaisons with various women. Given these austere and unbecoming circumstances, there are many tender and heartfelt moments wherein the family members manage to connect.
The powerful use of language is almost overwhelming and more than succeeds in bringing out the emotions, sounds, sights and smells of the story. The young narrator at times seems wiser than his years as he pivots the reader from heart ache to redemptive joy, from despondency to epiphany. Given how compelling both the story and the story telling are, many readers may find themselves re-reading portions before continuing forward. It is certain that many of the indelible images and details will resonate with most readers for some time after completing the novel, and many will choose to read it again. While it is not far-fetched, the ending is sure to leave even the most jaded reader breathless.
In his acknowledgements Justin Torres thanks many other well-known writers for their help and inspiration including Dorothy Allison, Allan Gurganus, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, and Tobias Wolff. If you enjoy the works of any of these writers, you will not want to miss this debut effort from Justin Torres.
Submitted by David Blake