When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord
Genre: Adult speculative fiction
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Release date: April 21 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: An allegorical story about one teen’s journey toward adulthood, and all the unusual challenges she and her friends must overcome.
And it makes me wonder if one day I might be able to rediscover fully the child version of myself, before things fouled themselves up, when I was a little girl with commendable manners, when my father and I were two against the world, when my striving for goodness was so natural it was like leaves falling from trees everywhere around me, when I believed sacredness was to be found in many small things like ladybugs and doll toes, when I didn’t have a murderous thought in my head, not one.
This isn’t the easiest of stories to review. There’s very little plot to talk about, for one thing. Joshua Gaylord has written a book of ideas and emotions, and in When We Were Animals he gets to the meat of what it feels like—literally—to go through puberty. It was especially poignant for me, because I happen to have a boy and a girl who are sixteen and fourteen, respectively. These are the ages when teens in Gaylord’s small town “breach,” or turn feral. During the three nights of the full moon each month (with thanks to Joss Whedon for instructing me that yes, in fact, the moon is full for three nights a month!), these teens suddenly feel the urge to run outside at night and tear off their clothes, run wild through the streets, fight and have sex with each other, and let their wild sides run completely out of control. This odd behavior lasts about a year, and then it’s gone forever. After which time, supposedly the teen has crossed the final threshold into adulthood.
The story is about a girl named Lumen, who is approaching her sixteenth birthday but who hasn’t breached yet (and fears she never will). Coincidentally, she hasn’t started her period either, so it was pretty clear that the two are connected. Lumen tells her story from two perspectives: as an adult woman looking back on her time during the breach, and her current life as a wife and mother and how the past has affected her. She’s a very interesting character, in the sense that she seems detached from most of the emotions that the other kids her age feel, probably because she’s telling her story from the distance of adulthood.
Lumen faces many of the same problems that any teen would face: being accepted by your peers, dealing with bullies and peer pressure, and having that feeling deep within yourself that something wants to break free, but not knowing how to deal with it. What Gaylord has done is taken all that teen angst and given it an outlet in the form of breaching, a completely acceptable rite of passage that every teen in town must go through. I loved the feral quality to these outings under the full moon, and while there isn’t anything supernatural to breaching—it seems as if the teens literally turn into animals, but they don’t—it felt dangerous and unpredictable.
Trigger warning: there are a few uncomfortable scenes that border on rape, although in one of the scenes the boy does change his mind and stop. But even those scenes weren’t as horrific as they could be. These teens know they’re out of control, and anything done during breaching is simply part of going through the process. In one scene, one of the more unlikable characters, a boy named Blackhat Roy, goes up to Lumen after she breaches for the first time and tells her, “Now you’re fair game.” It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what Roy is talking about.
My favorite relationship is the one between Lumen and her father. Because her mother died long ago, Lumen and her father have been alone for as long as she can remember. He loves her and trusts her to always do the right thing, and I felt bad for him when his perfectly behaved daughter was inevitably caught up in the breaching madness. It’s hard to read about a parent losing faith and trust in his child, and my heart broke for both of them.
Gaylord’s prose is delightful, and I honestly kept forgetting that a man had written this story! The voice of Lumen radiates femininity, and I’m so impressed by how well a male writer stepped up to the plate and convinced me that Lumen is indeed female, with all the emotions and desires that overtake teens at that age.
When We Were Animals cast a spell over me and made me think. It made me uncomfortable at times and sad at others. I know I’ll be looking at my own children with new eyes now that I’ve read this book, watching for signs of madness, which will hopefully never come. For those readers who enjoy unusual stories, this book is highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
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