Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Review: 'We The Animals' by Justin Torres

by Fenella Johnson

There is a type of summer that exists in books like these; it hangs at the very top of the year, quivers with tension and an undercurrent of violence, making the prose strange and breathless.It is that kind of summer that the boy narrator of We,The Animals finds himself in, at the start and the end of the novella.

In We,The Animals a secret and a family unravel via elegant chapters that serve as vivid screenshots for the growing up-and coming of age-of three poor immigrant boys in New York in what we presume to be the late 80s.We never forget their immigrant status because the characters never let us-they are too poor, too Puerto Rican, too white, their father can't hold a job-and just as we can't forget their foreign ideals and values,Torres doesn't let us forget their gender.Their boyhood and brotherhood is entwined: they speak with one voice, operate with three bodies, they fancy themselves to be akin to the Three Musketeers, and as they grow older, they grow apart.These  biracial children must endure the role of the “other” throughout the book, within their family, their heritage. (“Mutts,you ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.”)They don’t belong anywhere but with and to each other, until the end when even the comfort of brotherhood is removed: after a secret revealed, the narrator says ,'everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost.'

The novella concerns itself primarily with these three boys who roam the streets in woozy half light, learning themselves and each other-the backdrop of their parents troubled marriage is present throughout and when explicitly referenced it is accepted with a childish recounting of their relationship, which the narrator and his brothers clearly perceive as normal which makes it even more troubling( as Torres no doubt intends).The vignette-like chapters allow Torres to display his story as a montage: mambo dancing-'as if we could wear Spanish in our movements'-the lake where the family attempt to swim, men who look at girls on street corners like cats after a drought ,the intricate displays of their parents affection and hatred for one another, and the narrator's drive with his father through crippled old towns in the west as his brothers skip school.While the style of writing can often falter-some chapters last for too long, others are irritatingly short-it is mostly effective, especially when it is revealed that the parents have read the boy's journal while he was out and discovered not only his contempt for them and their poverty but his homosexuality, after which the chapters become disjointed as he is removed from the chaos of the family; excluded as he is by his most private desires being made public.

The book is enjoyable:,funny,shocking,vivid and despite Torres being given to heavy handed metaphors-he compares the brothers to animals regularly and frustratingly-the lyricism of the prose is interesting and original enough that he gets away with it.It is a worthy addition to the genre of coming-of-age stories as a whole and treats it's characters with a gentleness that suits an author who acknowledges the danger and safety of familial love.

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