WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS by Joshua Gaylord – Review

When We Were Animals

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
Pages: 336

four and a half

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.

When 2
UK edition from Ebury Press

Find the book:

amazon button2b&n buttonThe book depository button Indiebound buttonGoodreads icon

Follow me!
Follow by Email

Posted April 28, 2015 by Tammy in 4 1/2 stars, Reviews / 20 Comments


20 responses to “WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS by Joshua Gaylord – Review

  1. I also really loved this – it was totally out of character in terms of my normal reads but so compelling and thought provoking. And I really wanted to talk to somebody about Lumen – such a strange character, oddly detached when she was younger and with the strangest thoughts sometimes just popping into her thoughts – very curious.
    Lynn 😀
    Lynn recently posted…Kushiel’s Dart Read Along – The ScheduleMy Profile

    • Tammy

      I agree, it was hard to really like Lumen because she was so detached, especially the way she acted around Peter (if you know what scene I’m referring too), that really disturbed me!

    • Tammy

      I love hearing from other readers who’ve also read this! I’m going to go back eventually and read his other books.

  2. I’m very intrigued by this one! I love the idea of a more allegorical and literary kind of urban fantasy (because hello, UF is the best!) but some of the content does sound pretty disturbing. Seeing you – and other commenters – rave about Joshua Gaylord’s writing really makes me want to read this though!
    Danya @ Fine Print recently posted…Review: Cold Burn of Magic by Jennifer EstepMy Profile

    • Tammy

      It’s a great book, although I wouldn’t exactly call it fantasy. I’m not sure what to call it, LOL!

    • Tammy

      I think you’d like it too. There aren’t any supernatural aspects to it, but the overall feeling of strangeness was what drew me to it.

  3. JoshA

    The premise sounds great, but the story doesn’t seem like it would for me. We don’t have any kids, and are pretty far removed anyone in the family approaching puberty, so relating might be problem.