We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys three little kings locked in a feud for more.
Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals, won enthusiastic reactions amongst the readers and also good critical appraisal. It is a slender novella of hundred and thirty pages, divided into short chapters. The story centres around three brothers, Manny, Joel and the youngest of the brothers who remains unnamed throughout the book. They are the self-titled “three musketeers, three little bears, three chipmunks, three trolls, three monsters,” three little boys tied together by an unbreakable cord of brotherhood.
We observe the story through their eyes. What we are shown is a picture of a poor working class family, living somewhere in the suburbs, always arguing, fighting for survival, scrambling for jobs and always being hungry. Ma, who is white and Paps, who is Puerto Rican, are a young couple who have a passionate and far from harmonious relationship. Paps is a strong, violent character who beats both his wife and the three boys and also leaves the family from time to time to live with another woman. Ma is a hysterical and mentally unstable woman who fully depends on her husband’s love and nearly drowns her son trying to save her own life, or another time leaves the children to starve when the father departs. Nevertheless, we are always aware that the couple love each other and their children, even if it is kind of affection that is hard to understand. We are Animals is a story of growing up and of a coming of age but, most notably, it is a story of the importance of family and the bonds between siblings.
The strongest element of the novel is its use of language. The strength of its pacing is extraordinary, offering powerful imagery and sentences that pierce straight through the skin. Most of the book is narrated in the first-person plural: ‘we’ described through the eyes of the three boys. It is exactly this particular way of using the narrating language that makes the story so captivating and enthralling. When reading the story, we become one of the three brothers; we feel with them, experience fear and joy at the same time as they do, participate in their fights and adventures. We merge into one entity, one three-headed body.
Rather unfortunately, towards the end of the story the narration switches to the more usual first person singular form into the perspective of the youngest of the brothers. Together with this linguistic switch comes a major twist in the story, which although unexpected is also too abrupt and forced to be credible or appropriate for such a short story. If the novel ended somewhere in its third quarter, it would be a real gem to read. However, even in its final format, it is still a very strong first novel and we can only look forward to Torres’ future creations.