Sometimes I need to take a break from reading. I read pretty prolifically it seems, but that comes in peaks and troughs. When I’m busy at work, I struggle to keep reading. Sometimes I use it as a chance to catch up on literary magazines (I spoke about that in my post about the Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation from The Believer here), but sometimes I just need to take a break altogether. Rather ironically, this happened recently while I was working at and participating in the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Spending 15 hours a day putting on events for writers and talking about writing leaves very little time and brain space for reading. And sometimes this can be for the best - rather than struggling through a book without being able to follow plot lines, losing track of characters and not having any continuity in your reading - very rarely means you get the best out of a book, a novel in particular. So I took a break for a few weeks. When I came back to reading, still a little tired and dazed, I read the first twenty pages of a novella, only to forget every single word I’d read and then leave the book at home, with nothing to read on the tram to and from work. So on my lunch break I went exploring the shelves of one of my favourite bookstores and picked We The Animals on the cover alone.
Justin Torres’ debut We The Animals is a coming of age story. In many ways it’s similar to Junot Diaz’s Drown (read my post here) or David Vann’s Dirt (read my post here), where identity is explored within a chaotic family setting. It’s really a character study of a young family: three young boys from a Puerto Rican father and a white mother. When the first son was conceived, the mother was 14 and the father 16; they had to take a bus to Texas so they could marry legally. The youth of the parents and the mixed ethnicity of the boys wildly set them apart from the white working-class children around them in small-town New York state (with obvious references to the author’s own childhood).
Like David Vann’s work, there is plenty of discussion of family trauma and the consequences this has on the children. This is a family where alcoholism and domestic violence is never far from the surface, but more prevalent is the emotional violence and psychological damage caused by the parents to each other but also by the parents to the children. The most striking example is when the mother refers to her pregnancy with the first boy, Manny, as her “heart ticking like a bomb”. This immediately made me think of Oliver James’ book They F*** You Up, on how the psychological results of how we were treated by our parents in the first few years of our lives defines us as adults.
There are plenty of examples of emotional trauma and questionable parenting in We The Animals, but the scene in which the family go to the local swimming pool really stood out to me. Firstly, when the mother asks the youngest child why he doesn’t swim:
She asked the question as if she was meeting me for the first time, as if the circumstances of my life - my fumbling, terrifying attempts at the deep end, the one time at the public pool when I had been dragged out by the high school lifeguard and had puked up pool water onto the grass, seven hundred eyes on me, the din of screams and splashes and whistles momentarily silenced as everyone stopped to ponder my bony weakness, to stare and stare waiting for me to cry, which I did - as if it had only just now occurred to Ma how odd it was that I was here, clinging to her and Paps, and not with my brothers, who had run into the water, dunked each other’s heads down, tried to drown each other, then ran back out and disappeared into the trees.
With this in mind, the following scene becomes even more disturbing. When the mother unsuccessfully tries to swim, holding onto the father and sons, but then panics and claws them with her fingernails.
‘She really clawed you up like that?’ Manny asked.
‘She tried to climb onto my head.’
‘What kind of…’ he started to say but didn’t finish. He was two years older than Joel and three years older than me. We waited for his judgement, for the other half of his sentence, but he only picked up a rock and hurled it out away from him as far as he could.
As the boys grow, we start to see an emotional maturity and awakening in the narrator, as well as the older brothers. Despite being told “we’re never gonna escape this, never” by their father, they slowly start to carve a way out for themselves. For the narrator, this is through coming out, of being more conscious of himself outside of the plural ‘we’. But somehow this feels false: not the outcome, the way it’s written. After spending so much of the book focussing on the childhood of these boys, Torres quickly skips to their adolescence without any clear narrative link. The result is quite jolting and disruptive. I felt like Torres either needed to flesh this out further, or just stick with the childhood of the boys, which was far more engaging. As soon as he moved the boys into adolescence, he lost me and was unable to win me back.
Though We The Animals has definite similarities to Drown or Dirt, the end result is far less affecting. It lacks the humour and heart of Diaz’s Drown, and the toughness and emotional sucker-punch that is Vann’s Dirt. There were certainly scenes that pulled me in, but as I closed the cover and put the book down I was missing a sense of satisfaction and closure that I was looking for.
I don’t cope well with winter. I never have, I doubt I ever will. It’s just not in my blood. So I spend several months every year trying to stay busy so I won’t have time to remember how miserable the grey skies make me. When I’m cold and feeling sad, I like to turn to my beloved slow cooker. Throwing a few ingredients and some herbs and spices in before work means coming home to a beautifully fragrant, warm and inviting apartment. The homeliness of the cooking smells washes away the cold and often stressful commute home. Plus, it means dinner is ready as soon as you are. So recently I made this lamb and vegetable broth, using lamb shanks that fall off the bone into tender chunks of meat, alongside finely diced carrot, celery and onion, plus slightly larger sliced leek and fennel, along with a few bay leaves, some sprigs of thyme and plenty of salt and pepper. Once the soup is cooked and I’ve pulled the remaining meat off the bones, I throw in handfuls of sliced cavolo nero (Italian cabbage). It also freezes well and I just throw the cavolo nero in as it comes back to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. It’s perfect winter comfort.