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When We Were AnimalsReview - When We Were Animals
by Joshua Gaylord
Hachette Audio, 2015
Review by Christian Perring
Aug 4th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 32)

Listening to this audiobook, it seemed at first that it might be a young-adult title because it is about a teenager in a town where all the teens go through a sort of supernatural change.   It is about bodily changes, alienation, sex, and identity, which are all standard YA fare, and the hint of a werewolf story might tip the balance. But the story is told from the perspective of the grown girl, Lumen Fowler, now married with a son, living in a Midwestern town, and a good portion of the book also deals with her identity as a wife and mother, which are not YA themes. What finally makes it clear that this book is aimed at adults is the amount of description of penises and intercourse.   Gaylord is interested in sexual desire.

The plot is simple enough. When Lumen was a girl, all the teens in town went through a process called breaching.  It lasts about a year, and it generally happens a year or two after puberty.  For three days each month, the adolescents go wild, running around town, fighting and having sex, without getting pregnant because all the girls go on the pill early on.  When the breaching ends, the young people start their adult lives.  Lumen is told by her father that her mother, who died young, never went through breaching, and Lumen expects or hopes that it won't happen to her either.  She is a smart student, and she lives separately from most of her peers.  She is also much smaller than the girls in her grade, so it isn't surprising that she has not gone through breaching or puberty even though she is 15 years old. As the novel develops, we see whether or not she is really so different from the others.

The ideas here are very psychoanalytic: all "Civilization and Its Discontents." As a metaphor for modern life, the idea of breaching is paper thin. Gaylord wants to depict a world where if you scratch beneath the polite surface of modern life, you quickly find sex and death, eros and thanatos.  It would be exasperating but Gaylord is a good writer and carries it off.  His use of language is sophisticated, and he has a great turn of phrase. It makes the book a pleasure to listen to.  The reading of the unabridged audiobook by Suehyla El Attar helps too. She performs the book with a straight-faced conviction and enthusiasm that powers the story on, and avoids the dangers of either archness or supernatural seriousness.  The depiction of the small town with a terrible secret brings to mind David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks, but When We Were Animals avoids the perversity and silliness of that.  Another comparison is more of a stretch: The movie The Stepford Wives (the 1975 version), which is a richer source of cultural commentary but has a clunky plot. Gaylord's book is more believable and the characterization at least of Lumen is strong; she is an appealing and interesting girl and her adult self, while damaged and deeply isolated, is still smart and charismatic.

 

© 2015 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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