We the Animals by Justin Torres

I finished another book!  At this point, I’m patting myself on the back for every 50 pages I read.  We the Animals was a perfect book choice for me at this stage of my slump because it was over and done with in 125 pages.  Excellent.

We the Animals chronicles the upbringing of three brothers born to teenage parents.  The boys struggle to come of age among poverty, a dad who slaps around his wife and children, and a mother who works the graveyard shift to keep everyone alive.  Our narrator begins as the collective ‘We’ of brotherhood and eventually evolves into the nameless ‘I’ of the youngest brother against the ‘They’ of his family.

The language is stark, poetic, and packs a punch with no superfluous language.  I love writing that can add layer after layer in 125 pages worth of concision.  To me, that takes natural talent.  This novella reads like sharp, poignant vignettes of the author’s childhood.  Bits and pieces of his memory, images of his youth, told through the short stories of each chapter.  While this technique may turn away some readers, I think this style  remains true to the nature of memory.  Our earliest memories are often just brief images at best with almost no true sense of linear progression whatsoever.  You just get glimpses that tell a story when all placed together.

Language aside, the first 3/4 of this story was wonderful.  Each character is fully realized.  Within just a few pages, I found myself emotionally invested.  Even the abusive father managed to garner my sympathy at times which muddies the water of good vs evil smartly.  He might act like a monster at times, but deep down you know he loves his family – after all, he’s stuck by them – but at the same time, love can never be an excuse for violence.  The family, especially the boys, battle with cultural and racial identity issues.  But gender identity is foremost in this novel, which is a favorite theme of mine.  The father is often unable to hold a job, struggles with traditional male roles made more difficult by being Puerto Rican in an American world.  His wife, for all intents and purposes, is the family breadwinner.  The boys see a weak father who beats them and a strong woman who lets him.

Despite these beautifully complicated themes, the last 25 pages or so let me down in a HUGE way.  The novel shifts abruptly, time jumps around without reason, and I just ended up feeling confused and lost.  The concreteness I was so fond of initially transforms into abstract metaphorical language that honestly left me wondering what the hell was going on.  The clunky ending did not work and that’s sad because Torres could have had a near perfect debut.  Despite this pitfall, the book is definitely worth the read and I can see nothing but bright things in the future for Torres.  And if you have read it, what did you make of the end?


8 thoughts on “We the Animals by Justin Torres

  1. Oh it is a shame when a book that is so good gets messed up at the end. I’ve heard about this book here and there but still don’t know if I want to read it. Glad you got out of your slump.

  2. I just got this one from the library on audio, and have been eager to get started with it. I am a little nonplussed that the end sort of fizzles though, and will have to see what I think when I get to it. Great review today!

    • The end is just completely different from the rest of the novel. Some like it, some don’t. I didn’t. I felt the ending needed better exposition.

  3. I’ve been googling around and reading reviews as I just finished this book. Partly because I’m not sure what to think and partly because I want to decipher my thoughts, but I think this review is really lovely. I realize that you need the WHOLE book to really understand what’s happening and the stark change of age of character and we to I may put-off some people. I think overall I really liked it.

    • Overall, I definitely liked it as well. Just wish there had been more exposition in the ending – felt a bit too gimmicky.

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