Monday, February 13, 2012

What We're Reading: We the Animals

We the Animals, by Justin Torres

This is a small jewel of a novel, a heartbreaking and beautiful story of a family told in passionate, angry, and haunting prose. We never learn the name of our narrator. He is one of a family of three boys, all close in age, growing up in poverty. It is a hard and elemental existence, one where tenderness is scarce and too many wants are left to roam unsatisfied. Their parents are a mixed-race couple, a Puerto Rican black father and a Hispanic mother, both who work at menial jobs. The feeling of entrapment in a life that is led in the shadows is the backdrop to this story. But central to the dynamic of this family is the tempestuous and often physically abusive relationship between the parents of these boys. Whether it is because their parents are too worn out and hopeless or simply because they aren’t able to understand the kind of love children need, the boys seem to be left to fend for themselves and find emotional refuge in each other. And yet we also witness moments between the parents and their children that, while infrequent, disclose deep and abiding bonds of affection. So it seems to be with dysfunctional families, where the hurt run as deep as the love, and anger and dependency join in a bond that seems unbreakable.

Torres depicts a family in isolation. We never hear of any significant friends or characters outside of the family. This seems in some sense implausible and artificial, but it allows him to focus on the relationships in the family. Whatever the economic or social factors, the family is the scene of the crime, the subject about which the author wants to say his piece. Rather than using a developing story line, Torres tells the story in a series of vignettes, in emotional incidents and images that have the character of musical preludes. Most of these seem to be set in the darkness of the outdoors or in lamplight. There is a subtle sense of chronological sequence to these vignettes, one that becomes more pronounced as we reach the sections of the novel where it becomes apparent to the adolescent young narrator that he must somehow free himself from his family, assert his differences and needs, and seek to lead his own life. He must learn to become human, to leave a brutal warren, to walk on two feet.

We the Animals has the feel of a memoir; one wonders if it could have been written that way, and also how much of it is experienced and how much imagined. But it is enough for the reader that it feels raw and real and immediate; it is utterly believable and moving. It is perhaps the kind of story that only a young writer can write, one in which the author looks back before too much time and distance have dulled the emotional experience of youth. This is the first novel Justin Torres has written, but there is so much talent and ability and power here that you know that other great things will follow. We will be watching, waiting, and reading.

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