Book Review: We the Animals

Sometimes words fail. Every time I’ve tried to sit down and write a review of Justin Torres’ We the Animals, I turn into a blubbering mess. The words don’t come. Or one word comes out and the rest get stuck.

I looked forward to the release of We the Animals for months. The Stanford magazine I help edit, The Claw Magazine, will include an interview with Justin Torres in the next issue. The interview comes from April, long before the book was released, so there were already things I expected from the novel. The book (and Torres) have also received a fair amount of press the last few months. I opened The New York Times Book Review two weeks ago to find a full-page ad for the novel; last week, it was the first review on the website.

In terms of length, We the Animals reads more like a novella. At $18 from a normal bookseller (Amazon sells it for about $11), the price is a bit steep for the slim, 128-page tome. Pricey or not, the book is worth it. Really worth it.

Torres’ prose is light and heartrending. Structurally, the book recalls Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. In terms of narration, Torres invokes Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Comparisons between all three have already been noted. All three qualify as Bildungsroman– coming of age stories– often of the romantic variety. Torres gives his version its own spin. The novel is narrated in the third-person plural, perhaps the most difficult narration. It immediately become clear, though, that the events of the novel are filtered through the eyes of the youngest child, who always seems slightly distant from his brothers.

The story follows three brothers living in upstate New York with volatile parents. Their mother, 14 when her eldest son was born, is dependent on their father’s love, even as the reader watches graphic scenes of him beating her. The youngest child, unnamed, narrates with fragility, innocence, and wisdom. At the beginning of the story, he turns seven while promising his mother to remain six forever. The voice is one of a man looking back narrating from his seven-year-old self. The lyrical prose belies the character’s intelligence and sensitivity.

Torres writes with astonishing grace, especially during violent and intense scenes. This is a family who, despite their dysfunction, sticks together through most of the boy’s childhood. The novel then jumps ahead nearly a decade, when the boy is a teenager. Although a little odd, the boy’s teenage years weave into his childhood; childhood provides the foundation for the climax of the novel. The boy’s life unravels when his family finds his journal and sends him to a mental asylum. That night marks the end of brotherhood, childhood, boyhood.

I read the entire book in one sitting and plan to re-read it. Perhaps tonight.

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  1. […] a full review, read here. Adjectives cannot describe how incredible I found this slim novel. The mark of a great piece of […]



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