We the AnimalsBy Justin Torres Granta, £12.99
It’s not often that a novel, let alone a literary first novel, makes your heart stop, but at the denouement of We the Animals, mine did. This is a small book and so beautifully written it’s like a miniature, brightly coloured tapestry. But the story, of the young narrator’s life in a chaotic family, is incendiary. The book spits and hisses with pain and fury and determination. Once you begin, if you have to let it down, you want to put on asbestos gloves before you pick it up again.
The lines between fiction and autobiography are so blurred now that at times the distinction seems almost irrelevant. The author, Justin Torres, is the son of a Puerto Rican father and an Irish-Italian mother. He grew up in poor circumstances in upstate New York. The narrator of his novel has a similar background. He has two brothers. (At nearly seven, he’s the youngest.) His parents, still young themselves, have migrated from Brooklyn; they are exiles in Hicksville.
Paps, their father, is such a violent, unpredictable presence that even a “good time”, such as when he is teaching his “mutt” sons to mambo in a steamy kitchen, is permeated with anxiety: “Paps turned the stereo up louder, so loud that if we screamed, no one would have heard.”
Ma, the mother, is loving but voraciously needy, and unable to extricate herself from the destructive dance of desire and anger she is engaged in with her husband. “Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop.”
The kids run wild and act tough and torment baby birds and dream of escape.
Ma works the graveyard shift at a brewery. At one point, Paps disappears, apparently off with another woman, and Ma slips into depression, sleeping all the time and missing work. The boys are left to fend for themselves. “We ate things from the back of the refrigerator, long-forgotten things . . . We ate instant stuffing and white rice and soy sauce or ketchup.”
Each chapter is a vignette that could stand alone, but the book also has a subtle momentum: each episode builds the sense of creeping tension and nudges the story towards its electric conclusion. Fact or fiction, it’s an impressive debut, in its burning truthfulness, its broken poetry.
- Cathy Dillon
The Spider King’s Daughter
By Chibundu Onuzo
Faber and Faber, £12.99
A spoiled Nigerian teenager, the daughter of a corrupt Lagos businessman, is intrigued by a street hawker after she has taunted him from the comfort of her chauffeur-driven jeep. Their first encounter encapsulates her superior ranking in their small world, where, at 17, she has long since learned that money is the root of all pleasure and power.
By instructing her driver to slow down on the busy, dusty road, and then to speed up when the diligent young ice-cream seller has managed to heave his merchandise to their vehicle, the world-weary and hardened Abike asserts her power over Runner G, just as she has done among her so-called friends at school and the less privileged members of her extended family.
Although she is amused and diverted by their developing friendship, Abike also senses that there is something different about the proud and private Runner G: he is obviously too well-spoken and educated to have always been a street seller. In an engaging narrative that interweaves their two voices, we discover not only that she is correct but also that their lives are more closely intertwined than either might have suspected.
In her debut novel, 21-year-old Chibundu Onuzo deftly portrays two disparate worlds contained in one sprawling city: one heaving with sweat, casual violence and poverty; the other coolly distant and, in light of such hardship and brutality, absurdly concerned with European brands – and equally violent.
For Runner G, the past is ever present, and can’t be brushed aside as it is in Abike’s privileged world. Abike is her father’s daughter, but her abbreviated relationship with Runner G leaves its mark. The plot of this fast-paced narrative seems at times overcrafted, but there is a twist to the finale.
- Mary Boland
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
Michael Joseph, £12.99
You have a busy life; right now, spending a year in bed might sound like a blissful retreat. In Sue Townsend’s new novel, Eva Beaver gives in to her compulsion to do just this on the very day she dispatches her philandering, egomaniac husband, Brian, to deliver their brainiac 17-year-old twins, Brian jnr and Brianne, to Leeds University.
Having spilled tomato soup over a chair she has lovingly restored and embroidered, Eva heads upstairs and climbs into bed, fully clothed. It’s not empty-nest syndrome or self-pity that drives her to this potential sanctuary. No, Eva Beaver (née Bird-Brown) just needs to think. She’s had 50 years of living, and now she wants to figure out what it has all been for, and she’s quite prepared to depend on others to feed her, or not, as the case may be.
She has the bedroom denuded of all furnishings and fittings, bar the bed, and has it painted entirely in dazzling white.
Sue Townsend creates a hilarious set-up and then allows a bleakness to creep in gradually as Eva becomes bed-bound to the extent that even the en-suite becomes off limits to her. Naturally, things get out of hand.
Somehow, Eva becomes a beacon of hope to the masses and, over the course of the year, manages to sort of fall in love with a kind and handsome white-van man. In the end it seems to Eva that simple kindness is the key to life; there are those who will give willingly and others who will only take. Finding out which category a person falls into is probably one of life’s greatest challenges. And that’s the journey we all make, whether it’s in a boat, on the internet or from the relative safety of our bed.
- Claire Looby