Granta, £12.99. £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
We the Animals, By Justin Torres
Tuesday 13 March 2012
What it is to be a boy! Adventures each and every day, with endless rough and tumble in the cause of rebellion. Our mixed-race narrator is growing up in New York state with an abusive father, unpredictable mother and two aggressive elder brothers. His parents started their family much too young – Ma was 14, Paps 16 – and they are not coping well. Yet, while Paps's violence is despicable, his musculature and vitality are mesmerising for his youngest son.
If fraternal relations are frequently savage, the brothers are often as selflessly united as three miniature Musketeers. Many escapades end in beatings from Paps. But behind the pain, the boys sense they are entering a realm that, while brutal, is somewhere they must travel. Burgeoning manhood steadily builds barriers against the sweet encroachments of their mother's love.
Justin Torres's lyrical treatment of transgression can be shocking. If occasionally it appears that he is toying with the surreal, that's because the story contains enough dysfunctionality to distort our sense of reality. Paps tries to teach his wife and youngest son to swim, for example, by towing them out into the middle of a lake and letting them go.
Torres's extended use of the first-person plural sets a defiant marker and at times his prose has the intensity of poetry. Here's the narrator describing his mother in a state of disarray: "Her mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down in the back. She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous."
This is a novel but every chapter could stand alone as a short story. Together they form a haphazard montage of events, each ending in understated epiphany. There are surprising developments. Rather than disintegrating, this family is like dough: it can take repeated pummellings and stretchings.
The autobiographical nature of Torres's narrative is reminiscent of David Vann, another US newcomer, and prompts the same question: whether Torres will widen his purview to material less directly related to his life story. In the meantime, his debut holds out the promise of further virtuoso writing.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food