We the Animals by Justin Torres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"'This is your heritage,' he said, as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe [...]"
We the Animals (2011), a short, largely autobiographical novella about childhood and youth in an ethnically mixed family, is the literary debut by Justin Torres. We meet the narrator when he is about to turn seven and through a brief series of separately titled vignettes we follow him until he is on the brink of adulthood. The narrator's father, Paps, is Puerto Rican while his Ma is white; the boy has two slightly older brothers. "You ain't white and you ain't Puerto Rican," Paps tells the boys. "Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance," he says, showing how proud he is of his heritage. We witness the family's struggles, with Ma working night shifts, Paps trying to keep a job, and the marriage going through a rough period.
The first part of the novella is absolutely outstanding: the evocatively magical and powerful writing conveys the colors, sounds, and feelings of childhood and some of its essential aspects, such as when the boys interpret events they have no way of understanding, and how these interpretations - rather than the events themselves - shape them. The bittersweet vignettes, charming and often painfully honest, have made me recollect some vague memories and long forgotten impressions from my own childhood. And there is much more: this very short book will open the eyes of people who - like this reviewer - were raised in a monoethnic family in a monoethnic environment.
But then, almost from the very beginning, the novella offers intimations of something different about the narrator, hints that he is not quite like his brothers. Ma is of course the first to know it (a very brief scene on the day of the narrator's seventh birthday is stunning), the brothers feel it and yet firmly stand by the junior at least until much later, and Paps eventually understands the difference too. At about two-thirds of the story we witness a rather dramatic change of focus: with the boys reaching adolescence the narrator defies the macho ethos of Paps and his brothers when he begins shaping his identity and defining his own self. While so far he has struggled with his mixed ethnicity and with understanding of the adult world, now the matter of his sexual orientation becomes more important.
The main strength of the novella is the masterly portrayal of the gradual shift from the "we voice" - the collective voice of the three brothers - to the individual voice of the narrator. The coming of age is represented by the "us" morphing into the "I". Alas, I also perceive a weakness: the brief narrative structure of the novella is not strong enough to support the weight of all these diverse major themes: coming of age, multi-ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
To sum up: while until about the midpoint of the novella I had felt that I was reading a literary masterpiece, I ended up reading just a good book: moving and honest yet not particularly remarkable. Close to four stars, but not quite there.
Three and three quarter stars.
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