For a long time, when I was a girl, I was a very good girl.
–Joshua Gaylord - When we were animals - c.2015
In a small town in America the teenagers run wild every full moon for three days while their parents, and everyone else locks themselves inside, safe. For three nights the teenagers “breach” and run and fight and fuck. Why it only happens here no one really knows, but in this town this has always happened. After a time the teenagers grow up and leave all that behind, allowing those following after to run wild themselves.
Luman has always been different to the other girls in her class. She is quiet. She is a good. She does what is expected of her. She believes that she will not breach. Her mother never did, her father tells her story as when Lumen was just a baby her mother died in a car crash. So Lumen believes that she will be as different as her mother.
And then she finds herself running naked through the night.
Lumen is the narrator of this story. Now she is married, she has a son, she is remembering growing up. She still feels like an outsider. She doesn’t understand how worried some mothers get at germs and cuts. She knows that bodies are tough, that they can take a lot of punishment and recover. But she still doesn’t really know who she is, or where she fits in society. She has yet to come to terms with herself and with her past. With her relationships with all those around her.
All her childhood she did what she was told, and even know she is fully prepared to be who others think she should be, to act as they think she should act. To be the person others expect her to be.
But every now and then something from inside her will break free and cause her do what others never expect. How is she supposed to reconcile the two Lumens?
When we were animals is a story about trying to find yourself when you don’t know where to look. About how families stifle children in their attempts to protect them, and make it so much harder to grow up. It is a coming of age story that highlights that adult fear of teenagers. Okay, so maybe these teenagers are more dangerous than regular ones, but that idea, that teenagers are capable of such darkness. And there is a lot of darkness in this novel. Violence is everywhere, but in some ways it is an innocent violence. Physically hurting people is just something that happens. But Lumen’s life is also affected by lies and misunderstandings, that lead to more lies and more uncertainty. The darkness that surrounds people and how they interact with one another. The masks people put on to go out into the world, and what those masks hide, and so, of course, what happens when those masks come off.
It’s a book worth reading.