“We’re never gonna escape this,” Paps said. “Never.”
We The Animals by Justin Torres
Reviewed by Poornima Apte
We The Animals in this wonderful debut novel refers to three brothers, close in age, growing up in upstate New York. They are the Three Musketeers bound strongly together not just because of geographical isolation but because of cultural separateness too. The brothers are born to a white mother and a Puerto Rican father—they are half-breeds confused about their identity and constrained by desperate and mind-numbing poverty.
This wild and ferocious debut is narrated by the youngest of the three, now grown, looking back on his childhood. It’s a coming-of-age story told in lyrical sentences that are exquisitely crafted. And while there are many moments of beauty in here, there are also ones of searing violence.
The boys can do nothing but stand back and watch as the intensely abusive relationship between the parents plays out everyday and it’s almost worse because the evidence creeps up after the fact. One day, Mom’s eyes are swollen shut and cheeks turned purple “He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out,” the narrator, barely aged seven, recalls. The severe abuse is compounded and made even more heartbreaking by the boys’ innocence and gullibility—they buy this lie and many others, whole.
The daily struggle for survival is heart wrenching yet without melodrama. “We stayed at the table for another forty-five minutes, running our fingers around our empty bowls, pressing our thumb tips into the cracker plate and licking the crumbs off,” Torres writes about one of the many evenings when one can of soup and a few crackers would have to make do for all of them. The boys don’t quite understand why their parents are seemingly happy one moment and why their mother slips into deep bouts of depression the next.
One of the many beautiful chapters in the book is one called “Night Watch” (each short chapter in this slim volume has a name). In it, the boys accompany Dad to work when he finds work at a night job. They have to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags in front of the vending machines, out of plain sight. They are here (and not home) because Mom is at her job working the night shift at a local brewery. The next morning, when a white man comes to relieve Dad of his duties, he spots the three musketeers and can guess at the situation. From the argument that follows, the boys already know that Dad has probably lost this job too. The family’s otherness, especially as perceived by the boys, is just beautifully rendered here.
As the boys enter adolescence, the narrator immediately knows he is separate and apart from his brothers. “They smelled my difference—my sharp, sad, pansy scent,” Torres writes. It wouldn’t be a reveal to say that the difference lies in the narrator’s sexuality, which can be glimpsed early on, if one pays close attention.
In a recent interview, the author Justin Torres has said: “I think that everybody struggles with family in some way and I hope that they can come away realizing that you can go back to those experiences and find something beautiful in everything and that you can make art out of your experiences.” With We The Animals, Torres has crafted just that—a beautiful and memorable work of art. This slender novel packs a powerful punch.
Justin Torres proves you don’t have to pen a giant volume to write precociously about huge themes such as family, race, adolescence and sexuality. Of course Torres writes so beautifully that you almost wish that he did.
This review was originally published on mostlyfiction.com.