We The Animals – Book Review

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.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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    • zibilee on December 26, 2011 at 16:29

    I do think this one sounds very sad, though it does interest me. At this point, I don’t think I could handle this one, but I am adding it to my list anyway, as I think that in the future, it might be a really engrossing read for me. Your review was very affecting, and touched me. Thanks for sharing it.

  1. I was engrossed with this book the whole time I read it but it wasn’t until the end that it knocked my socks off.

    • Serena on December 26, 2011 at 18:28

    I really loved this novel and how powerful it was. I had to read it after I read Ti’s review. I’m glad that you liked this one and was as moved as I was. I am still thinking about it.

  2. I love the excerpts you give here – you’ve convinced me I must read it. And, hooray!, it turns out that Granta are publishing it in the UK in March 2012. Do you suppose it counts against my New Year’s book buying ban if I preorder it now?

  3. I may have to break down and buy this one as my library doesn’t have it. I find the premise so intriguing, and I’m increasingly drawn to novellas and authors who can tell such a powerful story in a smaller number of pages. Great review.

    • Wendy on December 28, 2011 at 09:10

    Heather: It is a very sad book – but so well written. I will be interested in your thoughts on it at some point.

    Kathy: Ah yes, the ending! I felt like I couldn’t write much about it in my review without giving spoilers…an interesting twist to the story.

    Serena: It is one of those books that really sticks with you, isn’t it?

    Victoria: LOL – go for it (I won’t count it against your book buying ban at all!!!). Glad the UK is publishing it so you will get a chance to read it!

    Carrie: I love books like this – short, but packing a huge punch. I think it takes a very talented writer to compress so much emotion into so few words.

    • gavin on December 28, 2011 at 16:28

    This is another novel high on my TBR list. Thanks for a wonderful review.

  4. I did love this book — so very much. I am glad that (once again) we agree.

    • Wendy on December 31, 2011 at 15:58

    Gavin: You’re welcome – I just know you are going to be blown away by this one.

    Beth: I love when we agree 🙂 I remember reading your thoughts on this one and thinking, “oooooh, that sounds like just the kind of book I will be amazed by.”

    • James on January 24, 2012 at 06:01

    http://jameswjennings.com/2012/01/we-the-animals/ I agree to some degree.

    • Wendy on January 25, 2012 at 09:28

    James: Thanks for the link to your review. I agree – this is a novella, not a novel 🙂

    • Cassie on March 15, 2012 at 12:24

    I totally agree with your review of this and I just finished it as well and I feel like I’m going to let it stew as well for a while. I’m not even sure I can read another book yet. Thank you for this review.

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