Review: When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord
Published by Mulholland Books on April, 21 2015
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
When We Were Animals is a beautifully chilling story about humans and the animals within us. I absolutely love the prose and Gaylord’s way with words. He takes you right into the town and into the mind of our protagonist, Lumen. Lumen Fowler grew up in a small town with a peculiar nature. For three nights of each full moon teenagers “breach”, which means they run wild through the night and succumb to a carnal and predatory nature. They become animals free of of the bonds that hinder more base instincts and desires within humans in a civilized society. This stage usually lasts about 1 year and starts about age 15 but can vary per person. It creates an interesting setting where the people of the town know to stay indoors and away from these kids as they go crazy, free of restraint.
Lumen is an absolutely captivating character. She is a thinker, one great example is how she explains the meaning of her name, defines herself in terms of her name (which has numerous definitions). She loves words and maps and books. She has always feels a bit different from all of her friends and peers. She is absolutely sure she will be different in that she will not breach, she will not become one of the teenagers that runs wild in the night, she will not abandon all civilized ways to explore and rejoice in the night with the others in the wild where there are no rules to confine them. In some ways it reminds me of that “it can’t happen to me” type of outlook. She sees this thing that the teenagers become a part of and she just can’t reconcile that with any version of herself.
She is complex and quite conflicted trying to rectify the version of herself she wants to be, the version of herself everyone else sees and expects her to be, and the version of herself she can’t help but let come the surface even if she doesn’t want it to. We are told this story as her older adult self recollects her early teen years. Because of this we also get glimpses of the woman she becomes. It is a very interesting perspective, especially since it is not necessarily a reliable or unbiased one. We see the intelligent, beautiful and heart warming aspects of her personality as well as the darker ones.
Almost every teenage character, regardless of how sweet or nice, had moments of raw, visceral meanness. And I really felt that was part of the story. No matter how good someone is, everyone has a bit of evil, a bit of animal in them. And what happens when you try to suppress some innate part of yourself? Or worse, what happens when you don’t suppress that part of yourself? Kids learn these things and often make mistakes as they go. Not nearly to the extremes portrayed in the book. But sometimes people (particularly young people) go through a phase where repercussions don’t mean as much as fulfilling their desires or fitting in. They experiment and figure out what they can and can not do. They test the limits. People can turn on each other, they can be incredibly cruel and often groups can make it worse. I think this is part of what I loved about this book, it can be an examination of how teenagers grow up and experiment as they leave their childhood behind.
I enjoyed seeing how relationships in this change and evolve as so often happens. We find ourselves suddenly in a different place or stage of life and grow apart from people in our life. I think this is a terribly common thing, especially as kids grow up. There’s a loss there and we see Lumen as she deals with this change. There is also her relationship with her father which is incredibly important. Her mother died when she was very young, so her father raised her on his own. They are very close and her father has an incredible amount of respect for Lumen. You can’t help but love him as much as Lumen does.
I really can’t say enough great things about this book. It grabbed my attention from the beginning, and Lumen’s character just fascinated me. I found an examination of coming of age and relationships in this. But even at a surface level read it is incredibly engaging. Highly recommend.