We the Animals by Justin Torres, HMH, September 2011
I picked up We the Animals at BEA this year after Publishers Weekly dubbed it "One of the Books You Should Pick Up at BEA This Year." My first thought as I snatched a copy from the Houghton Mifflin booth was "Well, dang. I thought I was getting a galley*. This is just a blad**." The slim volume is maybe 1/2-inch thick. I am so used to hefting a few-inches-thick YA paranormal romance (hefting most right into my giveaway pile) that when I get a book that adds up to all of 125 pages, it doesn't feel like a book at all. Funny how times change.
Before I get into the book itself, I want to add that it's interesting how the cover changed from the ARC I have to the final cover you see above. The cover of the ARC is solid blue, with the title, blurbs, & author name scribbled in white writing, harsh lines that almost look scratched into blue paint by a child. From the front cover a large pair of black & white eyes looks out, also crude & hand-drawn. Two smaller pairs look out from the back cover. They aren't sinister, like the predatory eyes that shine from the blackness in cartoons. But they aren't kind, either. They might be curious, looking out into the unknown. The cover perfectly captures the spirit of the book: animalistic, innocent boyhood. Boys aren't cruel & predatory, not intentionally, nor are they kind, again, not intentionally. They are natural, wild, animal boys, the three brothers.
Doesn't the cover above look joyful by comparison? That image evokes summertime, joy, Peter Pan - perhaps then, the idea of eternal boyhood. (Maybe this isn't coincidental; one chapter of the book is called "Never-Never Time.") To me, this image of leaping, bounding, joyous brothers doesn't at all capture the spirit of the book the way the ARC cover does. It doesn't balance the joy with darkness. But hey, it's just the cover. That's not what you came here for.
We the Animals is a dark, beautiful, raucous novel - or novella, I suppose - that never stops moving. I read it in one sitting, completely caught up in the musical, poetic quality of Torres's writing. Now, a few weeks since finishing it, the memory of reading it feels like a flurry of activity and violence. No emotion in the book, which follows in sharp vignettes the growing-up years of brothers Manny, Joel, & the nameless narrator, & their Puerto Rican father & white mother, is felt halfway. Every feeling is strong. The anger & hurt are harsh, but so is the love. Even love - parental love, brotherly love, romantic love - is expressed through gritted teeth, & always haunted by the fear that the hug or kiss will soon turn violent & dangerous. It almost always does.
From the book's opening line, "We wanted more," to its closing line, "Here they go," nearly every sentence in the novel suggests movement & intense emotion. There is not a word too many in this book. What I found most fascinating is that despite the spare prose & short length of the story, after the narrator grows from the trusting naivete of youth to the confused & frightened sexually aware adult, I found myself longing for his boyhood, of the time before the boys understood their parents' relationship, of the time when the narrator & his brothers smashed tomatoes in the kitchen. Their mother caught them; instead of getting mad, she joined in. "Do it to me," she says. They smash a ketchup bottle with a rubber mallet & cover her. The images of their gleeful childhood moments that express the strength of the family are indelible & endearing, yet always juxtaposed with inescapable violence, the dysfunction. "Our mother yelped & slid to the floor & stayed there... ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head."
The boys-as-animals metaphor might be too heavy-handed if the book were longer, but as it stands, it is parcelled out into a perfect portion. If I have any complaint with the novel, it is that the narrator's discovery, exploration, & struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality is crammed into the last 40 pages of the novel. It isn't that it was poorly explored or fleshed out, or out of balance with the rest of the story, it just wasn't quite enough. I suppose I felt like the brothers sitting around the table at the opening of the novel, banging their forks on the kitchen table. I wanted more.
*galley: proofing copy of a book often used for advance reading copies
**blad: or, book layout & design: a pre-pub booklet that might just have a few chapters of the book in it
P.S. Just as an aside, I have to mention that Justin Torres is incredibly nice. I always enjoy a book a little more when the author is kind & personable (conversely, I always enjoy a book a little less when the author is haughty or rude). I look forward to reading more from him.
Next up, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.
Next up, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai.