"When We Were Animals" Book Review
Written by Karin Crighton
Published by Mulholland Books
Written by Joshua Gaylord
2015, 319 pages, Fiction
Released on April 21st, 2015
When We Were Animals is a novel made for book clubs. A nuanced, poetic, gritty look at the most complicated time of our life, When We Were Animals chronicles the life of Lumen, a hyper-dutiful, über-diligent young girl who fears growing up as much as she desires it. In her small town the teenagers experience their puberty as a year of violent behavior invoked by the full moons. As Lumen ages without violence or menstruation, she begins to experience isolation and make discoveries about herself and her past.
I’m very torn about When We Were Animals. While the market is saturated with coming of age tales, author Joshua Gaylord strikes a new chord with Lumen. He illuminates the adolescent psyche with her inner monologue, riddling the book with shattering truths about our secret desires. The frank discussion of sexual violence that occurs between the “breaching” teenagers is unsettling. While the children willfully engage in fights and sex with any one of any gender at any time, there are references to Lumen putting herself in situations in order to get raped. It’s alarming, but upsettingly in line with Lumen’s personality.
I like watching Lumen live a typically atypical female life. She is insecure, confident, violent, careful, vicious, and lonely all at once. She isn’t diminished in any way; every part of her expanding consciousness is explored. My only issue with Gaylord’s depiction is that it’s not as vivid a depiction of men. In a March 2015 interview with Nerdy Kitten Pants – you heard me – Gaylord said that he doesn’t get male voices quite right; they end up like “cowboys or Nietzche”. That is true when you look at the main male characters of Blackhat Roy and Peter Mitchum. But he’s also said that his reasons for a female protagonist comes from the idea of “teenage girlhood as a symbol of incorruptible purity of spirit” (The Hub, March 21st, 2011). That’s rather dismissive of men. Boyhood is just as traumatic as girlhood...I imagine. It’s also that virgin-goddess view that keeps Lumen from ringing completely true throughout the story. Yes, it’s a visceral and eye-opening look at how we perceive our journey to adulthood. But there’s a lot of flowery, poetic interludes from Lumen’s perspective that drag the narrative down long after she’s outgrown being the perfect little angel in a white dress. There’s a time for her, and the writing style, to grow up and get raw.
The book ends with little place for Lumen to go. We see her as an aimless adult, still unsure of how she fits into the system after suburban life takes her. The ending finds her secretive yet subservient; a dissatisfying end to her wild, manipulative years. It’s disappointing when you hope for so much more for her. And for all of us.
Contradictions aside, When We Were Animals is worth a read. The amount of inspiration and indignation I felt reading its pages is more than most books have stirred. Maybe it will spur a breach yet.