There are expectations when one reads a book published by Granta and endorsed by literary luminaries such as Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson, especially when one of those endorsements suggests, as Cunningham’s does, “It resembles no other book I’ve read.” My manager recommended it to me. She reads a gazillion books a year and thought it was pitch perfect. So, the hype is high.
It’s a slender novel, only 125 pages, and yes, it is different.
The novel begins “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
The voice is the “we” of the title, a trio of brothers, and the use of “we” is impeccably done. We, the reader, are drawn into the “we” of the brothers. Theirs is a life of poverty and deprivation. Dad, Paps, is a bully; a menacing presence capable of unpredictable tenderness and plentiful beatings. Ma is victim and hope, receptacle for anger and frustration. She endures at the hands of the males in her life, she tries to fight back, but loses. “We” are three wild kids, rampaging, flipping the finger, smashing things, fighting, scrapping and eating like animals, (erm, yeah, “We The Animals”). Torres writes violence and poverty in a darkly poetic, compelling way.
The narrator is the youngest brother and he is identified as different by his mother from the beginning. In the end his difference causes, inevitably, the “we” to become “I.”
That’s where the novel lost some of its power for me. I think perhaps the division felt too sudden, too fast. The vignettes had led me to think he was very young, and then a little older. The conclusion seemed abrupt, the narrater much older. It’s a shocking ending. One which perhaps didn’t feel entirely organic. Then yesterday, after I had written this review, I read an article in The Guardian by the author, and the reason the ending didn’t feel as pat as storybook endings often do is because it is a version of his truth. This happened to him. (I try to avoid spoilers on this blog and if you’d rather read the book with fresh eyes maybe avoid the article, however, had I read it in advance it’d undoubtedly have changed my understanding.)