four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-We the AnimalsA graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Justin Torres currently holds the coveted Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. We the Animals is his debut novel.

The Story: In short, episodic chapters, an unnamed, seven-year-old boy, the youngest of three brothers, recounts a turbulent childhood in the embrace of a remarkably dysfunctional family. As teens, Ma and Paps quit high school to get married when Ma got pregnant. Life has since been a brutal struggle for the young family, partly because of Ma's grueling job at the brewery and Paps's alcoholism and violent outbursts. Set apart by their mixed-race (part-white, part-Puerto Rican) status and often left to fend for themselves, the boys cling to each other. But the narrator's bookish and gentle nature gradually drives a wedge between him and his brothers--until their differences threaten to divide them forever.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 144 pages. $18. ISBN: 9780547576725

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"We the Animals is rich in tactile detail and sensory recollection. ... Torres has done here what all good novelists who exploit memory do: He has surveyed his entire childhood and extracted its most pigmented impressions." Alice Gregory

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Brief, evocative prose that creates such a visceral reality isn't easy to pull off. ... 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." Maggie Galehouse

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Torres' writing is spare and strong, like his protagonists, and with We the Animals he chooses his fictional anecdotes with care. ... We the Animals may take a short time to read, but its rough beauty will linger on long after you turn the last page." Meganne Fabrega

NO Times-Picayune 4 of 5 Stars
"If Torres slips, it's only in the final pages, where he telescopes the action, jumping ahead to adolescent conflicts that probably belong in another novel. Mostly he offers pitch-perfect understanding in pitch-perfect prose, tapping powerful veins of sentiment without succumbing to sentimentality. And he never lets up on his characters or his readers." Chris Waddington

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"We the Animals, the kind of sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel that may soon be extinct from the mainstream publishing world, is mostly written in the first person plural, a tricky gambit that calls attention to itself immediately (as it did in Joshua Ferris's best-selling novel of cubicled anomie, Then We Came to the End). But the device doesn't impede our engagement with Mr. Torres's spare, haunting story of a boy scrabbling toward wisdom about the adult world and his place in it." Charles Isherwood

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Reading the novel is something like paging through a family photo album, an intimate experience possessing the kind of continuity that comes not from a cut-and-dried narrative but from the simple recurrence of characters over time. ... Torres, a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is especially good at creating a sense of heightened or supercharged reality--it's not surrealism, quite, or magic realism--without destroying his story's verisimilitude." Andrew Palmer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It's rare to come across a young writer with a voice whose uniqueness, power and resonance are evident from the very first page, or even the very first paragraph. ... From the first of its 128 pages--all of which can be read in one sitting, as they undoubtedly will be in many instances--readers, even those who don't go on to love everything about the book, will have little choice but to conclude that they are hearing something new, something strong and something very self-assured." Jeff Turrentine

Critical Summary

In this "slender but affecting debut novel" (New York Times), Torres skillfully creates a vivid family portrait that aches with love and grief. His brief, loosely connected chapters resemble a collection of short stories more closely than a novel, and, without the momentum of a cohesive plot, his characters must propel the story. Torres succeeds admirably, building intimacy with the reader through spare but evocative prose. Additionally, Torres injects new life into a well-worn story of poverty and dysfunction through his writing style and well-drawn characters. Although some critics felt that the first person plural narration and an abrupt shift in tone in the last section of the book doesn't work as well as he perhaps intended, they still praised this wonderful, assured debut.