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WE THE ANIMALS by Justin Torres Kirkus Star


by Justin Torres

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-57672-5
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

An exquisitely crafted debut novel—subtle, shimmering and emotionally devastating.

Those whose memories of contemporary literature extend a quarter century might be tempted to compare this with Susan Minot’s Monkeys (1986), another short, elliptical debut novel about family dynamics that received rapturous reviews upon publication. Yet this is a different novel, and a better one, about a different sort of family and a narrator’s discovery of how he is both a part of them and apart from them. The dedication—“For my mother, my brothers and my father and for Owen”—suggests that the narrator’s rites of passage reflect the author’s own, that this is a novel that probes deep, even painful truths. The narrator is the youngest of three sons of a white, Brooklyn mother and a Puerto Rican father, who became parents in their teens. Like the title suggests, the first-person narration initially might as well be plural, for the narrator and his older brothers Manny and Leon resemble “a three-torsoed beast,” scrounging for sustenance and meaning amid the tumultuous relationship of their parents, one that the boys can barely understand (though sometimes they intuit more than the narrator can articulate). Their bond provides what little defense they have against their mother’s emotional instability and their father’s unsteady employment and fidelity. They are, like some of the most exhilarating writing, “wild and loose and free.” Yet the narrative voice is a marvel of control—one that reflects the perceptions and limitations of a 7-year-old in language that suggests someone older is channeling his younger perspective. In short chapters that stand alone yet ultimately achieve momentum, the narrator comes to terms with his brothers, his family and his sexuality, separating the “I” from the “we” and suffering the consequences. Ultimately, the novel has a redemptive resonance—for the narrator, for the rest of the fictional family and for the reader as well.

Upon finishing, readers might be tempted to start again, not wanting to let it go.