Thank you so much to Em (Radzy) for this lovely review. Em is also an author, and with a review like this, I think it’s easy to see why!
We Are Animals is the story of Jan, who is looking for a woman who stole his heart (and passport) in 1978. Back then, fate kept bringing them together, but after returning to Goa five years ago to find her again, fate’s been awfully quiet, and hasn’t crossed their paths once more.
Written in 3rd person, with Jan as our narrator, the novel is a blend of morose atmosphere with enough comedy to keep emotion steady, in a way that reminded me of people who crack jokes when they’re uneasy. It’s a surprisingly sad story, featuring a man who gave up his life to find someone, but also in many ways, unbeknownst to him, find himself, as it felt as if he wasn’t sure who he was after experiencing the passport thief. While the turns of the tale take us on an adventure, I never quite got over that initial loneliness in the opening chapters, grounding me with a character who felt lost amongst a world he never quite fit into. A part of me wonders if this was even meant to be a sad story, or if something resonated within me so I couldn’t see beyond it, but if I say nothing else about this author, it’s that he writes complex characters, full of real, heartfelt emotion, impeccably well. Again, I don’t think this was meant to be sad, and as the story moved on, and Jan grew as a character, that initial emotion lifted, but I never quite got over it… I suppose as is true in real life too. I definitely related to Jan in ways I didn’t expect, and for a narrator, I truly enjoyed how fragile he could be, as well as stubborn and closed off. All this occurred mostly in his thoughts, and between the lines, but it spoke to a similar part of my psyche, which, while unexpected, I loved.
Pacing wise, this was surprisingly slow at the start, meandering, and a touch confusing. Now, as an author I could see why it was the way it is – we don’t want to give too much away at the start, and heavy exposition is the easy way out, but frowned upon. The author decided, rightfully so in my opinion, to show us instead, and tell the story in little bursts of monologue blended with dialogue, and while it took a little while for me to get what was going on, I can’t do more than applaud the author for choosing the more technical route. It paid off, and I wouldn’t change the emotion at the start for anything, but it did take a little while for me to fully grasp the point, and dive into the storytelling. I think later on down the road I’ll be seeing if this is turned into an audiobook, as I feel the opening would work better for me spoken aloud, but as it is, once I settled into the author’s voice, I adored it. This takes its time and flows in a way it wants to. This isn’t going to be for those who need snappy novels, nor will it work for someone who wants a book to take a single afternoon, but if you want something to leisurely enjoy, and feel something toward, this is that novel.
As far as the plot itself goes, as I’ve said, this is exceptionally character driven, and I enjoyed the way the author let the cast speak for themselves, without cheap action. There’s the absurd, of course, but overall, this is Jan’s story, and he tells it, unapologetically, and truthfully. It’s somehow grounded in reality and while it is slice of life, and literary, it reminded me a lot of David Sedaris’s work. A little absurd, a little sad, a little hopeful, and overall heart breaking in its acceptance. I think if you like Sedaris, you’ll enjoy We Are Animals, but equally, if you like character driven work with flawed narrators, this is excellent.
Something else that really worked for me were the different points of time the novel takes place in, giving us a wider look at the world, without that exposition I talked about earlier. The scenes set in the past were my favourite, as younger Jan was untouched by harsh reality, and I enjoyed his youthfulness. It was like seeing an old, broken mirror brand new, but knowing it’d be broken one day. I keep saying things that make out this is the saddest thing you’ll ever read, and trust me, it’s not, but it’s emotion laden, and I feel comes from a truthful place, so that atmosphere simply comes out. Either way, young Jan was my favourite. Jan isn’t my most favourite main character, and honestly I can’t say any are my absolute favourites, but their honesty won me in ways few characters can claim.
Did anything not work for me? Well I mentioned the pacing, but surprisingly something else I’d make mention of is the chunks of thought between dialogue. At times this works wonderfully, flawlessly, and did what I needed it to, but other times I just wanted a conversation, and felt we were diving too far away from it. It’s a delicate balance, and overall, I wasn’t mad, but I definitely have been spoiled recently by fast action. If I had to critique, I’d simply say have a look at mixing leisurely dialogue with punchy conversations only dotted by tags, and shake things up more, just to create movement.
All in all, this novel made me feel, as I’m sure is obvious. I didn’t expect to, nor am I actually over it, but sometimes the greatest pieces of fiction moves us, makes us a little uncomfortable, and forces us to confront ourselves. This did that for me, and truthfully, while I have no doubt it was intentional, it was beautiful, and I’ll be absolutely keeping an eye on this author. This is a novel I’d recommend for before bed, and for when you can sit and be with it, as this is definitely a story that needs immediacy.