& Review: When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord

When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books

When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books

The Book Itself: The phases of the moon are, of course, integral to the story. The font is skinny and somewhat menacing. I wish it were a little more exciting, but it certainly sets you up for the ambiance the novel brings.

My Review: A small, quiet Midwestern town, which is unremarkable save for one fact: when the teenagers reach a certain age, they run wild.

When Lumen Fowler looks back on her childhood, she wouldn’t have guessed she would become a kind suburban wife, a devoted mother. In fact, she never thought she would escape her small and peculiar hometown. When We Were Animals is Lumen’s confessional: as a well-behaved and over-achieving teenager, she fell beneath the sway of her community’s darkest, strangest secret. For one year, beginning at puberty, every resident “breaches” during the full moon. On these nights, adolescents run wild, destroying everything in their path.

Lumen resists. Promising her father she will never breach, she investigates the mystery of her community’s traditions and the stories erased from the town record. But the more we learn about the town’s past, the more we realize that Lumen’s memories are harboring secrets of their own.

A gothic coming-of-age tale for modern times, When We Were Animals is a dark, provocative journey into the American heartland.

Reading the events of this novel, I kept thinking: wait, is this all just a big metaphor for puberty?

Because essentially, it is. Once a month, teenagers run wild and the adults let them because its what teenagers have done in this town since the beginning of time. Yes, even when those teenagers injure and sexually harass/harm other people. Even when people die. Multiple people. Important people.

But you know, those crazy kids. Lumen is an outcast, teased relentlessly for being small, for being the last in her class to breach, and for her complicated mommy issues. She goes through typical coming-of-age trials: liking a boy, liking a different boy (a bad boy), questioning the past her father feeds her, trying to get to know the mother she never really knew, and lusting for sex and danger every time a full moon comes around.

I wanted to hear more from Lumen as an adult. You can tell she’s deeply affected by what she went through as a child, but I wanted to really know how much. How on earth do you get past something that happened to you that was beyond your control, that you knew was coming and you were helpless to contain yourself or others. And it happened every singly month for years. At what times in her daily routine does this all hit home? Especially considering the last scenes (bit more on that later), how does she function?!

I also wish the logistics were hammered out more. I kept thinking if everyone in the town does this, why don’t they all just LEAVE THE TOWN. They do sort of kind of address this. But not really. They cite a single source of a young woman who left the town and it…didn’t go well. I needed more (again, I want to justify the weird…heavy handed metaphors don’t sit really well with me). The people here aren’t proactive enough! Isn’t the property and psychological damage enough to take some action here?! I know, I know, the whole breaching thing is symbolic. But it bugged me.

The book is well-written. Beautiful in parts, and certainly haunting. The last few scenes left me staggered. The book closes horrifically and doesn’t leave you with much falling action to catch your breath. It weirdly worked, considering the abrupt nature of the book’s subject. But boy, does it sucker punch you.

This book is really well-liked on the reviews I’ve seen. But it just didn’t jive with this reader. I couldn’t buy in to it’s particular shade of weird.

My Grade: C-


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