Book #92

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Three brothers tear their way through childhood — smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn — he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white — and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Torres presents us with nineteen vignettes exploring the coming of age and lives of three brothers growing up in a problematic family unit. The youngest, our narrator, tells us of nineteen different events from his childhood, and we see how these shaped him.

It’s written with a very dreamlike nostalgic quality, which really reinforced the themes of childhood and innocence. We see childlike confusion at mum’s depression, dad’s disappearances, and we see realisation and contemplation in later stories. These boys truly were animals in many ways - feral, bad mannered, violent - with only the circumstances around them to blame. It’s pretty bleak, but realistic voyeurism of an arguably toxic family.

In the final story, Torres ejects us from his comfortable, illusory narrative, and his tone changes to ensure we understand this is a very clear and perhaps recent memory. There was no build up to this, no tension, and it felt very jarringly inserted.

As such a short novel, it’s difficult to put into words exactly what I didn’t like. There was something, throughout the entire novel, that I just couldn’t engage with. Many things felt exaggerated, a lot felt gratuitous, and most of it seemed constructed to shock us in quite a stereotypical fashion. None of this worked for me, but from seeing the hype for We the Animals some years ago, it must work for some.