I read a lot of books, and sometimes the details of the different stories get a little blurry over time. I cannot imagine this ever happening with We the Animals by Justin Torres. This memorable book is beautifully crafted and the story is impossible to forget. We the Animals is a book worth reading both for the story it tells and for the different writing techniques employed.
A short, autobiographical novel written in memoir style, We the Animals explores one family, the bond of brotherhood, and what happens when it all falls apart. The author uses vivid imagery and detail to draw the reader into the narrator’s place and time. Each chapter is almost a short story by itself, but the characters are so compelling you want to keep turning the pages to see how it will all unfold. Moreover, the book is not crafted along a traditional plotline nor with traditional techniques, which makes for an interesting read from a writer’s perspective.
To me, the most interesting technical aspects of the novel are the shifts in time and narration. The bulk of We the Animals takes place when the boys are young – the narrator turns seven in one of the first chapters, and the events seem to take place in close chronological proximity. But toward the end of the novel, there is a dramatic shift in time. As readers, we are used to certain types of shifts in time, such as compression. For example, in one of the early chapters of the book the narrator reports, “Paps disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work …” (30). The compression occurs smoothly within the narrative, and readers maintain a sense of watching the story unfold. As we approach the end of the novel, however, Torres shifts time abruptly forward, without warning. Suddenly, the boys are no longer young children but drunk, arguing teenagers separated by many years from the young boys of the previous chapter.
This shift in time mirrors the shift in narration from the collective to individual first person point of view. For most of the story, the events are told from the perspective of the brothers as a unit, the untamed animals. Yet as we (abruptly) enter the teen years, the brothers stop being “we.” The narrator stands alone in the first person and his brothers become “they.” This shift in narration creates emotional distance and places readers more neatly in the shoes of the narrator. We experience the distance he experiences, we experience his sense of isolation as he feels more and more cut off from his “pack,” and thus the narrative shift highlights the break in the family dynamic.
I have read mixed reviews concerning these sudden shifts, but I believe they are successfully wrought. The point in time at which the shifts occur is an integral moment in the formation of the narrator’s identity and relationships with his brothers and family. Just before the shift, the narrator directs the reader: “Look at us, our last night together, when we were brothers still”(105). After that night, everything changes and the narrator is undone. He is separated from his pack. He becomes the animal, alone, trapped, and caged.
Have you read We the Animals? What did you think about the shifts? In general? And if you pick it up in the future, let me know your opinion!