Monday, February 11, 2013

We The Animals by Justin Torres

Justin Torres' debut novel is a coming of age story of a young mixed race boy and his two older brothers.  They tear their way through growing up, never stopping to think, constantly being called animals by their parents and neighbours alike. So much of what happens in their home and lives isn't understood by the narrator and his older brothers rarely take the time to explain it to him.  The bruises on his mothers face are from the dentist, he needed to loosen her teeth, he explains.  No further explanation is offered by the narrator, this isn't an adult looking back on his life, this is a child, telling his story, trying to understand it all himself.

I struggled to write a synopsis of the story.  I feel like so much happens in such a short space but there is no clear story being told.  To say that this is just the story of a young boy and his brothers growing up in New York is the tip of the iceberg - the relationships he has with his brothers, his parents, the world around him, his parents' abusive relationship all with their own separate story to tell as well.  You read excerpts from the narrators life, his experiences, the things which happened which made him the person he is now - all of the boring, the mundane, the every day is avoided.  Each chapter is a vignette, something punchy, extraordinary will happen to the narrator - another piece of the puzzle has been shared in the story which constitutes his life.  I can't tell you who the narrator is, when the events occurred  the details are missed out - these are memories, hazy, incomplete memories being shared.  The descriptions of some scenes are so vivid I felt like I had been physically punched in the stomach reading them.

One chapter tells the story of the hot and balmy night when the family, unable to sleep, decided to get in the car and go for a swim.  The narrator and his mother, unable to swim, clung on to the feet of his father, as he brought them further and further away from the shore, despite the mother's pleas for him to stop.  He then let them go.  He had decided to teach them to swim, and this was his idea of the perfect lesson.  The mother clawed and clung to her son, the narrator, who eventually had to flea her in order to save himself, and soon enough finds himself swimming away from her and his father, it had worked.  

This isn't an idyllic childhood nor story.  It is the lyrical telling of an impoverished childhood, an abusive household, parents too young to love themselves let alone their children.  You feel for the narrator, for his parents, for their situation - his father, married with three children before he's twenty breaks down in tears as he laments "we ain't getting out"; there is an eternal struggle for power, but no one actually wins.  It is a heartbreaking story, powerfully told, but there was a leap from childhood to adolescence that was just a bit too big, too ambitious, for the length of the novella.  It was hard to keep up - and whether that was intentional or not, I don't know, but it was hard to understand the sudden change in relationships and group dynamic of the family.

  It may not make a pleasant read in some parts but that does not mean that it is not a worthwhile read.  

// bloglovin' :: goodreads


Nell said...

Thanks for this review - I'm really intrigued to check this out for myself, I don't know where else I would have heard about it otherwise!

Louise from: //This Book Is Reserved// said...

Thank you - do let me know what you think if you read it! Louise

Tony Collins said...

this sounds really interesting, i cant wait to pick it up from my local bookstore (:

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