[This nuanced autobiographical novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Justin Torres

2011, Houghton Mifflin

Filed under: Literary

An avalanche of hype covered this book when it was published last summer. Its flap copy claims it is “an exquisite, blistering debut” full of “magical language” and “unforgettable images.”

That’s not exactly accurate, but it’s on the right track. Torres is not an especially gifted prose stylist; he falls into a fairly standard contemporary “young fiction” voice. Clipped sentences, long lists, lightly abraded grammar—all the hallmarks are here. It’s not bad, just not very unique. Like this:

These days, I sleep with peacocks, lions, on a bed of leaves. I’ve lost my pack. I dream of standing upright, of uncurled knuckles, of a simpler life—no hot muzzles, no fangs, no claws, no obscene plumage—strolling gaily, with an upright air.

You could’ve plucked that paragraph from a dozen debut novels this year. Luckily, Torres has a much more unique skill. He’s not a wordsmith, and not really a constructor of sentences, but there is poetry in his characters.

We the Animals should be rightly called a novella, both because it barely breaks a hundred pages, and because the story it tells features no real arc. Instead, Torres sets out to portray the emotional life of a young, poor family (evidently based on his own experiences growing up), and the nuanced web of relationships stretched among each of its members.

Three boys live with a listless, spineless mother, and a sometimes abusive, sometimes magnetically charismatic, sometimes absent father. The boys, their father is quick to tell them, do not belong much of anywhere.

We the Animals is about not fitting in and about loving your parents, and hating them, loving your family and hating them. It’s about being the smart one in the family, and also the weak one.  It’s about the whorl of emotions that come up when there’s not enough for everybody. It’s about trauma. The traumas from outside are tough but predicatable. Those traumas that come from within the family are devastating.

It’s a simple tale about three brothers trying to find their way in the world, and it’s simultaneously an infinitely detailed catalog of familial strife. And it’s one of the few books in the world still available as a library ebook. So there’s no excuse not to read it.

Similar books: Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner; The Believers, by Zoe Heller