A bang-up premise can lead to a letdown, and that’s exactly how I felt about When We Were Animals. The setup is so original, I couldn’t resist it: in a small Midwestern town, teenagers “breach” at the full moon—they run wild all night and come home naked and bruised in the morning, their memories of the night’s debauchery fuzzy and muted. The adults in town view breaching as a rite of passage; on full moon nights, they get home well before sunset and lock their front doors, while outside, anarchy reigns.
Lumen (indisputably one of my favorite character names ever), now grown and living a sedate married life far away, grew up in this strange town, and the knowledge of what she did during those unbridled nights won’t let her go. As she goes about her days, taking her son to the park and cooking dinner for her husband, she marvels that no one can see the dark, twisted girl she still knows herself to be. Lumen knows she isn’t quite right, or pure, or reputable—the town she grew up in made sure of that.
And here’s where the book failed me: Lumen makes such a big deal about how bad she is, how evil, how unsavory, that I was waiting for the big reveal—the moment when we’d finally find out what the heck she did during the breach that haunts her so. That moment never came. Lumen certainly did some weird stuff and indulged some strange urges, but the big cymbal crash, so to speak, never happened. Apparently it’s just the sum total of everything that happened to her during those formative years that affects her as an adult, and not a single pivotal act, as I’d thought.
Anyway—other than feeling a little blue-balled, I enjoyed Gaylord’s novel. His writing is lovely. Lumen’s narration, especially when she describes her adult life, is detached in the creepiest way. There’s definitely something not right about her. I wish Gaylord had let the bountiful subtext do the talking and skipped all of Lumen’s bald pronouncements about how bad she is inside; it would have made for a subtler and more effective read.
Despite its shortcomings, When We Were Animals is an absorbing, atmospheric, not-quite-horror novel, and if you’re in the mood for something creepy and dark to start your summer off right, it will be just the ticket.