Book, Interrupted: We the Animals

September 09, 2011 

Sometimes you just have to put a book down and tell the whole world about this great sentence/ paragraph/ page.

We the Animals may be a slight book — my advanced reading copy is only 125 pages — but what it lacks in pages, it makes up for in other kinds of “heft.” Set in rural upstate New York, the novel tells the story of three brothers navigating the stormy waters of their parents’ unpredictable relationship. The boys’ Puerto Rican father is prone to unpredictable violent outbursts, and their white mother is too often wrapped up in the disillusionment of her marriage to notice what her sons are up to. This leaves the brothers to run wild in the neighborhood — pretending to run away, watching porn for the first time, and imitating the violence they see at home in their interactions with strangers.

The story is told in a series of brief vignettes through the use of the first person plural. The effect is powerful — nothing short of complete immersion in the world of prepubescent boys in which bursts of haphazard violence quickly morph into moments of tenderness. Feelings burn bright and then fade. Justin Torres’ prose is simple but masterfully lyrical and all-encompassing. Here is his gorgeously crafted first paragraph:

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.

About three-quarters of the way through the book the tenor changes: the first person plural “we” is exchanged for “I” as the youngest son’s sexuality is revealed and the rest of the family turns against him. The switch in pronouns is abrupt and cruel, and the effect is devastating, but the novel’s end felt somewhat rushed to me.

Overall, however, this debut novel of love and trauma within one family is remarkably elegant and poignant. Highly recommended.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.


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