The conceit that underpins this terrific coming of age novel is the idea that beginning with puberty the kids of a mid-western town “breach”, i.e. when the moon is full they go completely feral.
Lumen Fowler is late to breach. While most of her schoolmates are spending their nights clawing, biting, fucking and running nude through the town and local area, she’s locked up in her bedroom. Lumen doesn’t see this as a particular problem. Her mother – now dead – never breached and Lumen has come to terms with the idea that she will never succumb to the phases of the moon. This does put her at odds with those around her and yet she becomes a focal point for the events that will have profound effects on Lumen and those who love her.
Joshua Gaylord’s use of language is wonderful. The prose is complex and rich while somehow being very accessible. I never felt stuck in the narrative and that’s because Lumen’s unique take on the world and the juxtapositions she observes are genuinely insightful and fresh. There are a couple of literary tics that I found annoying – this constant need to foreshadow the disaster that is to come – but overall When We Were Animals is a wonderful novel that explores what it is to struggle through adolescence, what it is to experience the sudden shift from childhood to the adult world. And at the same time it’s an exploration of family, of a daughter’s connection with her long lost mother, of a mother’s connection with her young son. While I didn’t shed a tear reading When We Were Animals the novel does pack an emotional punch.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the themes presented in When We Were Animals then I refer you to Karen Munro’s excellent review on Strange Horizons. And I’m linking to this positive review by Christopher Shultz because you can never beat a good sub-heading.