We the Animals

Partly autobiographical novel about a messy upbringing in New York

Book review, Time In

Justin Torres

Justin Torres’s slim volume comprises seminal moments from a young boy’s life, revealed in brilliant, searing flashes; its relatively few pages contain the arc of an entire childhood. An unnamed narrator – the youngest of three boys – grows up dirt poor in upstate New York with a fragile white mother and a Puerto Rican father. From flying kites made of trash bags to pounding tomatoes with a mallet until juice runs down their kitchen walls, these boys are out of control and vividly alive.

Though partly autobiographical, the novel evokes the exhilaration and violence of boyhood with such authenticity, we wonder how the author accessed his memories with such accuracy.

Torres, a first-time novelist, brings a poet’s attention to the placement and rhythm of words. His language sustains an almost trancelike reading experience – that is, until a chronological leap late in the novel finds the narrator transformed from boy to adolescent. Despite this jarring effect, the picture of the narrator’s messy upbringing feels complete, and the force of the book’s final emotional punch surprises. It proves that Torres is not only a novelist of deep empathy, but one with the ability to compress this feeling into prose until only the most essential kernels remain.

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