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We the Animals Paperback – September 11, 2012
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"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read. We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice."
—Esquire "First-time novelist Justin Torres unleashes We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a gorgeous, howling coming-of-age novel that will devour your heart."
—Vanity Fair "A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt. Written in the voice of the youngest of three boys, this partly autobiographical tale evokes the cacophony of a messy childhood—flying trash-bag kites, ransacking vegetable gardens, and smashing tomatoes until pulp runs down the kitchen walls. But despite the din the brothers create, the novel belongs to their mother, who alternates between gruff and matter-of-fact—'loving big boys is different from loving little boys—you’ve got to meet tough with tough.' In stark prose, Torres shows us how one family grapples with a dangerous and chaotic love for each other, as well as what it means to become a man."
—O, the Oprah Magazine "The imagistic power of Justin Torres’ debut, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), exists in inverse proportion to its slim 128 pages. Just try shaking off this novel about three upstate New York brothers whose knockabout childhoods with their Puerto Rican 'Paps' and white 'Ma' are the narrative equivalent of feral kitties being swung overhead in a burlap bag."
—Elle Magazine "A kind of heart-stopping surge of emotion and language in this musical tornado of a novel."
—Pam Houston in More Magazine "[We the Animals] packs an outsized wallop; it's the skinny kid who surprises you with his intense, frenzied strength and sheer nerve. You pick up the book expecting it to occupy a couple hours of your time and find that its images and tactile prose linger with you days after...what stays with me are the terrible beauty and life force in Torres' primal tale."
—Newsday "A slim book can hold volumes. We the Animals, the first novel from Justin Torres, is such a book. Not an ounce of fat on its slight frame, but the story is sinewy. Stong....We the Animals crafts beauty out of despair. From lives so fragmented they threaten to break off into oblivion at any moment, Torres builds a story that is burnished, complete. That takes talent, diligence and more than a little grace."
—Houston Chronicle "We the Animals is a book so meant to break your heart that it should lose its power just on the grounds of being obvious. That it pierces—with an arrow dipped in ache—signals that Justin Torres is a writer to embrace from the start. This is his first novel."
—Newark Star Ledger "Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to find the author to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again, and know exactly what I mean."
—Dorothy Allison "In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it."
—Marilynne Robinson "We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart, tight as teeth, and shakes back and forth—between the human and the animal, the housed and the feral, love and violence, mercy and wrath—and leaves him in the wilderness, ravished by its beauty. It is an indelible and essential work of art."
—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers "We the Animals marks the debut of an astonishing new voice in American Literature. In an intense coming-of-age story that brings to mind the early work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Sandra Cisneros, Torres's concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart on the very first page and have been there ever since."
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow "We the Animals is a gorgeous, deeply humane book. Every page sings, and every scene startles. I think we'll all be reading Justin Torres for years to come."
—Daniel Alarcon, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight "Three brothers and a dueling husband and wife are bound by poverty and love in this debut novel from Stegner Fellow Torres...The short tales that make up this novel are intriguing and beautifully written"
—Publishers Weekly "An exquisitely crafted debut novel—subtle, shimmering and emotionally devastating...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."
—Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW
From the Inside Flap
Three brothers tear their way through childhoodsmashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklynhes Puerto Rican, shes whiteand their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.
Life in this home is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense family unity that surrounds a child to the resilience and permanence of brotherhood to the profound alienation a young man endures as he begins to see himself in the world, this novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sucker-punch powerful. It leaves us reminded that our madness is both caused by, and alleviated by, our families, and that we might not reconcile who we are with who our loved ones see, or who we want to be for them.
Written in magical language with unforgettable images, We the Animals is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.
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The Final Verdict:
Though you have to dig a little to find it, there is a cache of gold at the center of this novel.
I love the opening line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Unhappy families all have their own special brands of dirty laundry and dark secrets.
But it’s rare that you get to see what makes an unhappy family so unhappy (unless, of course, you have the misfortune of coming from one). People often keep their unhappiness behind closed doors.
We the Animals opens those doors. Wide.
A little family background:
-- A fourteen-year-old white girl gets pregnant by her sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican boyfriend.
-- They drive to Texas to get married (they are from New York, and she’s too young to get married there).
-- Over the course of three years, they pop out three kids.
-- They move to upstate New York in search of a better life.
-- She works the graveyard shift at a brewery; when he works, he works odd jobs. He’s better at drinking than working.
-- The three kids, all boys, are wild and thick as thieves.
At the start of the book, the unnamed narrator (who speaks in first person plural, referring to himself and his two brothers) is seven. His older brothers, Joel and Manny, are nine and ten, respectively. Paps calls the boys “mutts” (“You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican.”).
Ma and Paps are reckless, abusive, desperate, young, and immature. They are still growing up, despite having the responsibility of three mouths to feed and minds to shape. Their parenting choices are questionable at times and atrocious at others–they smother the three boys with love and need in one moment and treat them like absolute s*** the next.
The book (at a scant 128 pages, it’s more of a novella, really) is told in vignettes that span about a decade. There’s the time Ma comes home on the narrator’s birthday after having been beaten until she’s purple. There’s the time Paps shows the boys how to dance the mambo like a “purebred” in the kitchen. There’s the time Ma and the boys act like Gallagher in the kitchen, smashing tomatoes and tubes of lotion and bottles of ketchup until they’re covered in slime and goo and look like newborn babies. There’s the time Paps tries to teach Ma and the narrator how to swim by taking them to the middle of a lake and leaving them there to fend for themselves.
Each chapter is like the telling of a distinct, vivid memory (some separated by days, others separated by years). They are snapshots that range from the joyful to the excruciating.
As soon as I finished reading the book, I went online to find out if it is autobiographical. It seemed like Torres was drawing from personal and painful experience. It is frighteningly and heartbreakingly real. And, not surprisingly, there is a lot of truth in his novel. The author has said in interviews that the facts are autobiographical, but the incidents are fictionalized.
We the Animals takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. That’s a played-out description, I realize, but here it is apt. There were times when I laughed out loud and times when I felt sick to my stomach. There’s a lot of love in this book, but there’s also betrayal and abuse and devastation.
Reading this book feels vaguely voyeuristic. You’re reading someone’s family secrets, and it feels a little wrong . . . but you want to do it anyway.
Who should read it: fans of short fiction (this is more like a collection of related short stories than a traditional novel); people who like emotionally-wrought memoirs.
The story, such as it is, is about three brothers growing up in a mixed heritage (white & Puerto Rican) home with parents who are sometimes physically and emotionally abusive, and often times neglectful. But there are no villains in this novel. The boys love their parents and vice versa. The parents in this story are not good parents, but usually they try and the narrator seems to give them some credit for that.
The text is a very short and quick 125 pages, which is the right length for a book written in this style. Had it been longer it would have dragged on and been too much for most readers. There are many parts of the text that warrant rereading as they are dense with meaning and beauty. The chapter called “Trash Kites” is an example of stunning writing.
The last 20 pages or so of the novel take a rather unexpected turn that you will not see coming. As a result I think the novel has some hints of autobiography in it, more than one would assume from a work of fiction. I am still thinking of the ending, especially the last page, and I still am not sure I get it. I don’t see that as a flaw by the way, just something I am putting out there. “We the Animals” is clearly a well written book, and I liked it quite a bit. I am not sure I enjoyed it though. I have to keep thinking about that one.