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‘We the Animals’

Debut novel highlights tumultuous life

By Katrina Young | Out on the Page

We the animals. We the three musketeers. We the three stooges. We the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the relationship undercurrents between the unnamed narrator and his two older brothers in “We the Animals,” Justin Torres’ engrossing debut novel.

“We the Animals” follows the three brothers and their young parents as they essentially grow up together.

Their Puerto Rican father and white mother gave birth to them while they were still teenagers. Due to age and socioeconomic factors, the parents did not always get things right in their marriage and their parenting. Their father was abusive and their mother was torn between whether to stay or leave. The parents often tried to hide the abuse but children are very perceptive.

WE-THE-ANIMALSweb2“Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone, some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop,” said the book’s narrator about one of his mother’s attempts to hold things together and be strong for herself and her family.

This family’s life is tumultuous with fleeting highs and debilitating lows, but those are their struggles to share together as a family unit. Those issues, regardless of how harsh, make them a tight-knit group with a seemingly unbreakable bond; that is, until the last few pages of the book.

The narrator is different from his family in ways that make the “we” separate into “them and I.” What was once unbreakable is shaken to the core and once lines are crossed, they cannot be uncrossed.

“Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost,” he said.

The narrator remarks on how quickly he is excluded and just as quickly, the book is over.

Despite the book’s brevity, Justin Torres does justice to the earlier parts of the story. Childhood is a language that we often forget how to interpret as we become adults but Torres gives vibrant life to the eccentricities of the three brothers. Torres also brings an affective impression of childhood exuberance and adult problems, both from the view of the narrator, who was only 7 years old at the start of the book. I do wish the ending presented the same depth as the rest of the book, however.

We will be able to ask Justin Torres any unanswered questions about “We the Animals” during his upcoming visit to San Diego.

Torres has been recognized with a Cabell First Novelist Award from Virginia Commonwealth University and was the 2012 Indies Choice for the Adult Debut Honor award. He is also the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Rolón Fellowhip in Literature from U.S. Artists.

The Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation will feature the award-winning author during “New Faces of LGBT Literature, Part I: A Readout” event presented June 20 from 7– 8:30 p.m., at the San Diego Central Library, located at 330 Park Blvd., Downtown. Hope to see you there!

—Katrina Young is the treasurer of the Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation. She is a lover of literature and a developing activist. Follow her on Twitter @sapphicreader or contact her at ktrnyoung@gmail.com.

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