by Joshua Gaylord
Sometimes you hide away a memory because it is so precious that you don’t want to dilute it with the attempt to recount it.
When We Were Animals was not on my radar at all. But I helped a customer find it a couple of weeks ago, and ended up going to read the summery. When We Were Animals follows a high achieving girl, Lumen as she must deal with her strange town in which teenagers go wild during puberty. It seemed right up my alley.
I feel a little bit in the minority in that I was completely let down by this book. It seemed like it was going to be right up my alley.
Yes, Gaylord uses turning feral–I don’t know that I would classify them as full werewolves even if their transformations are linked to the lunar cycle– as a metaphor for the wildness of adolescence. But, we’ve seen that before. And I’m obviously willing to go on that ride again. I volunteered in a heartbeat upon reading the dust jacket, but I didn’t feel Gaylord offering me anything particularly new. Rather, he a lot of literary prose to make it sound like it was supposed to be new.
And, it wasn’t the prose itself that bothered me. In fact, it was what kept me reading most of the time, even if it felt a little much. And while it was good, it also kept us at a distance. It kept things from feeling immediate. It was all viewed through a literary fog for me.
I had huge issues with our protagonist. This was a coming of age story. But Gaylord seems to put Lumen up on a pedestal. She’s a goody two shoes. This in and of itself does not bother me. In fact, I recognized a lot of my own adolescent self in Lumen, fascinated by all things adult, and wanting to know all about them, but hesitant to step into that world herself. Still, it felt like we were putting Lumen up on a pedestal in an uncomfortable way. Even when she does start to breach, she doesn’t do anything particularly shocking . I don’t necessarily believe her future narrator when she talks about how dangerous she can be. Neither do I know why this danger has stuck so vividly with Lumen when she fought against it so hard. I was fully aware that this female coming-of-age story was written by a man. And I am not a person that thinks men are incapable of understanding that transition, or drawing complex, interesting female characters. Lumen didn’t feel complex or interesting to me most of the time. She felt idealized.
Also, there’s an awful scene in which a boy attempts to rape our protagonist. It’s a complicated scene in terms of consent as she eggs him on. But he is not breaching at the time of the scene. And I just don’t get it. It rubbed me all kinds of wrong. Yes, many, many women have to deal with unwanted sexual advances and rape. So why did Gaylord write a scene in which he seems to trivialize it. It was being used as an easy plot device, and I was not on board.
There were all kinds of other little moments throughout in which I think I was supposed to think things were edgy or be disgusted by actions, but it just didn’t click. I also realize it was supposed to be a fine line between the teenager and the feral beast. Many teenagers today are completely capable of many of these actions. I’m supposed to fear this. I liked that it was just an accepted rule of this world. But, I don’t know that it always worked. This was not helped that we didn’t get a really good look at the breaches because Lumen wasn’t involved. Even what we did see was from the view of an outsider.
Many, people have enjoyed this book. And I was compelled to keep reading, even as I wasn’t really sure where the plot was headed. It just was not my thing in the end.