Book Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres

When it comes to things that have a price tag attached to them, literature being no exception, there are certain trends that come and go. In commercial fiction, this trend might be vampires one day and zombies the other. In “real fiction”; what some people call literary fiction, there’s the trend of the autobiographical novel. Part fiction, part truth, these novels appeal to most of the best young novelists out there.

We the Animals is no exception.
I found out about Justin Torres’s debut novel after I read a short story of his in The New Yorker. It was good enough for me to search for more of his writing. And I found out that he had only one novel published.

We the Animals, which in terms of length stands at a meager 125 pages, makes for a very quick and easy read. But not meaningless. Dealing with the early childhood of three Porto Rican brothers, the novel is layered out in a pattern of scenes, all of them adding a bit more color and depth to the story itself; scenes that are perfectly endearing on their own, short chapters that paint a vivid picture of a perfectly naïve childhood. Eager and ambitious, the three brothers are locked in a sort of perilous and strange quest to understand the world around them. Their methods, sometimes unconventional or clumsy, sometimes getting the brothers into trouble, make this novel so great.

I wouldn’t call it a Bildungsroman, but it’s indeed a tale of discovery, maybe even self-discovery, as the narrator deals with the fact of being inherently different both from his two older brothers and his own parents. It’s not his evolution across the pages that makes this story endearing, but his own sudden realization of his nature. Human nature is reduced to a tale of trying to figure out who we are as soon as possible. And it strikes a particular truth, within the confines of the narrative itself, and the life of the reader. Because we all want to find out who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Depending on how long it takes us to figure that out, our life takes a different course.

This novel would be worth reading for just one scene. The one in which the boys are dancing with their father. It’s such a haunting and wonderful scene, a truly superlative chapter. The boys are having fun with their father, but at the same time, they’re confronted with a sort of identity crisis. What they are, they being of mixed race, is different from their father, and he does his best to show them that. They’re neither white nor Porto Rican, they’re not rich, and they’re not poor. They’re just boys who want to understand the world around them before it’s too late.

As the opening sentence goes, “We wanted more.”

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