Book Review: When We Were Animals, Joshua Gaylord (2015)

April 27th, 2015 12:15 pm by Kelly Garbato

“And so did we all fall…”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

I was sixteen years old, and there was something gone wrong with me. I was sixteen, and I hadn’t grown right, and all my friends were no longer my friends, and instead I had people I bit and who bit back. I had a beautiful, sad father and an angry drunken man who saw me as the reincarnation of a perverse angel. There was a pretty young woman with an affection for my father who picked out jewelry for me because my mother was a fantasy told to me in a good-night stories. I was sixteen, and my name was light, and my body had been bloodied and torn and repaired. I did well in school. I drew maps. I wondered what my life would become – I tried to picture it. I was sixteen, and I was an animal. I was the wrong kind of animal.

Today, Lumen Ann Fowler is a kind and devoted wife and stay-at-home mom. She brings her husband lunch at school, oversees her son’s play groups, attends community improvement meetings. She goes by the name of Ann Borden (maiden name Ann Fowler). Though she’s tried to leave her past in the past, she still feels the pull of a full moon, and the siren call of a dark, deserted night. On these sleepless nights, she writes: a memoir, addressed to no one and everyone, about when she ran wild – sort of – through the streets of Polikwakanda.

Whether due to pollution, the unique positioning of the moon, or a punishment handed down by Satan himself, “Pale Miranda” is home to a strange and sinister custom: For one year (give or take), starting at puberty, the kids “breach” – they run wild under the full moon. They fight, they fuck, they raise hell. Adults and children stay inside for their own safety; residents of surrounding towns know to steer clear of this cursed town. Breaching is a dirty and dangerous custom – yet an essential one, for only when kids breach do they grow into healthy and well-adjusted adults.

Young Lumen Fowler – conscientious student, loyal friend, daddy’s girl – is convinced that she will never breach. Her late mother didn’t, you see, and surely these things are carried in the blood? For a long while, Lumen’s underdeveloped body seems to be cooperating, both to her and her father’s relief. But as she watches all of her classmates breach, one by one, only to be left behind and set apart, Lumen tires of being the “good girl”: innocent, childlike, virginal.

When she finally breaches at sixteen, it’s both a relief and a curse: even as she embraces the animal inside her, Lumen’s solitude and self-loathing continue to isolate her from her peers; meanwhile, her baser instincts threaten to consume her. As she researches the phenomenon of breaching and delves into her mother’s mythos, Lumen’s world threatens to split apart.

Every male author who laments that women are too strange and unknowable – too alien – to write convincingly needs to read When We Were Animals. Like yesterday. This is how it’s done, people.

Gaylord has written one of the most unusual and compelling coming-of-age stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (plus it’s an interesting spin on the werewolf genre). Lumen is a complex, engaging, and conflicted protagonist; her adolescent angst (minus all the sanctioned violence) is something that many girls and women, myself included, can identify with. The self-loathing and shame especially hit home. I also had (have, present tense) a strained relationship with my father (though it began well before my teen years); Gaylord’s portrayal of a single father trying to raise a teen girl alone is poignant and spot-on, and gave rise to some of the most heartrending passages in the book. To wit:

I thought he would tell me he loved me, but I hadn’t heard that from him in a long time. When I was a little girl, he would say it routinely. He seemed compelled to say it. But the declaration had gone the way of tall tale and myth.

As though the love between a father and daughter were only a childish thing. As though womanhood made obscene that which had previously been precious and perfect.

And so did we all fall – and in such a way were a million Edens lost.

I get more than a little choked up every time I read that.

I hesitate to say much more, both because I don’t want to spoil the story – and also, I’m still not 100% sure what I just read. Especially disturbing is the narrator’s marriage of sex and violence, love and hate, depravity and purity; then again, I think we’re meant to be discomforted by Lumen, just as she seems to be afraid and agitated by herself – her physical body, her innermost thoughts and desires, the very essence of who she is, or thinks she is, or fears herself to be.

When We Were Animals is all but screaming for a feminist analysis; even as we see Lumen forgiving Peter for a near-rape (which never comes to pass because Lumen is “too good to rape”), we also have wonderful gems like this, which cut right to the heart of the virgin-whore complex: “My virginity, my saintliness, like the new snow you hate yourself for tromping on.” And: “I’m like the thing you worship. The thing you put on a shelf and dust every week. Don’t take Lumen down from her shelf – you’re liable to get your fingerprints all over her.”

Or how society places the onus on its girls to make sure boys don’t take things too far: “I was the good girl. The girl being groped and salivated upon in the den of her own home was the good girl. You were safe with her, because she didn’t allow anything to get out of control.”

It’s a wonderful, disquieting, sometimes vulgar exploration of adolescence and sexuality; the hazards of living on the margins; relationships between fathers and daughters, educators and students, young men and young women, friends and peers; the insularity of small rural communities; humankind’s relationship with nature; and the monsters we face in the dark – including the darkness that dwells within us.

When We Were Animals is also surprisingly, delightfully nerdy, what with its scholar-mapmaker-junior researcher narrator and her geologist father (“an engineering geologist” – “a person who knew how to harmonize man and nature.”). As animalistic as she may be, Lumen loves learning – and she puts her thirst for knowledge to use at every turn. (Yeah, Blackhat Roy and “all those fucking books” fractured my heart just a bit.)

Also – and last does not equal least – Gaylord possesses an uncanny knack for foreshadowing, particularly at the eleventh hour. On more than one occasion I caught a hint mere sentences before its meaning was revealed. Now that’s how you keep your readers on their toes, okay. Ditto: the ending, which I didn’t see coming. At all.

4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Blackhat Roy Ruggle, the town delinquent, is described as “gypsy dark, with black hair that was always a little greasy” and “dark…like Lumen” (Lumen being the narrator of the story). One of their classmates, Hondy Plint, is “slow.”

 

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