When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord


Book of the Year 2015 (see all)

I liked reading When We Were Animals a great deal but knew that I would find it very difficult to review. This was a book I enjoyed as much for how it was written as for what it was written about. It has a hypnotic narrative, features complex and engaging characters and at its centre is a young female lead for whom I felt much empathy. And I loved Lumen because I love characters who are flawed but fundamentally good.

Whilst reading this book I was reminded of two classics: To Kill a Mockingbird and the Lord of the Flies, both in the themes and the way in which the book was written. Gaylord’s narrative provides vivid mental imagery but this came as no surprise - I have read this author before, under his pseudonym Alden Bell, and in The Reapers Are The Angels he wrote a book I now hold dear.

The book markets itself as a gothic coming-of-age story for modern times and as I cannot argue with - or better - the description I think I can happily stay with it. The story centres on Lumen, a well-behaved, intelligent girl who feels ostracized from those her own age. Her friends are her father and her books. Her mother died when she was young. When We Were Animals is set in a small, quiet Midwestern town that is unremarkable save for one fact: when the local teenagers reach a certain age, they run wild. Through Lumen’s narrative of this less-than-ordinary childhood we learn about her community's darkest, strangest secret which is that, for one year, beginning at puberty, every resident "breaches" during the full moon. On these nights, adolescents run wild, destroying everything in their path.

As already mentioned the writing is beautiful: poetic and vivid and this includes the dialogue. This is a book you just need to sit down and read, allow the words to wash over you and experience Lumen’s extraordinarily eventful life. It will stay with you long after the last page is finished. Words like captivating and enchanting do it justice and if you read other reviews, you will find them repeated often. This is a coming of age story which is very different from anything you’ve likely read before. I believe this a book that will improve further through repeated re-reads and below you can see just how much others have enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

"When We Were Animals is so utterly compelling and absorbing that every time I (reluctantly) broke from it, I not only had to remind myself where I was, but who I was. Superbly written, chilling, original and deeply affecting, it will stay with me for a long time" (Sarah Lotz)

"An eerie tale ... poetically written, thought-provoking and has a good eye for life’s small but important details" (Sun)

"When We Were Animals conjures the dreamy satisfaction of revisiting the cult horror movies of your youth - things are familiar but they resound in new and unexpected ways, revealing subtle depths and poignancy. This is a dark, inventive and absorbing story, fittingly theatrical. It disturbs and entertains in equal measure" (Benjamin Wood author of the Costa-shortlisted The Bellwether Revivals)

"In ­Lumen, Gaylord creates an unforgettable and, well, luminous narrative voice, and his language captures the lush, dangerous possibilities of teenage nights to perfection. . . . this book deserves a breakout success like that of Jeffrey ­Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides" (Library Journal)

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