We The Animals, Justin Torres’s 2011 debut novel tracing the narrator’s emergence into adolescences in rural upstate New York, reveals a captivating voice and a perceptive eye to the conflict and pain that lie below the surface excitement of growing up.
Torres successfully situates the first-person narration in the growth from a child’s naiveté to the beginning inchoate grasp of the world’s harder realities. With the narrator at the tail end of childhood, he doesn’t condescend or work in a fake child-like idiom, but takes in the wild adventures of three brothers in the same curious view as he does a tumultuous home life. Judgment is rendered only as to immediate pleasure or pain. As the character ages, Torres lends him a more critical eye, but never steps outside his adolescent subjectivity.
Each chapter captures a discrete moment, leaping through time to form an impressionist’s rendering of the narrator’s growth. Binding them together is a focus on the painful pull that the development of one’s own identity forces distance from the collective family of parent and child. The narrator in childhood receives his parents’ world as a fixed neutral; the father’s abandonment and mother’s depression are one more adventure. As he grows and decisions become more consciously independent, he begins to attach judgment to parents and brothers, his self forming in difference. Torres hauntingly captures the first strains of this separation; the narrator’s mother has seen her older sons grow and act out against her, so she wishes he could remain always the same. He tries to wish this too, and believes he wants it, but the thought’s expression reflexively prompts him to lash out at his mother, feeling at once the pain of hurting her and the pleasure of declaring independence. Torres doesn’t attempt to resolve the competing feelings, allowing them to form a rich portrait of the narrator’s inner life emerging into adolescence.