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The horrors of adolescence

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When We Were Animals' offers skewed take on coming of age

There has never been a shortage of books about the rigors of adolescence. Growing up has always been hard to do, and literature reflects that. But with a preponderance of literary explorations, it becomes more and more difficult to bring new perspectives to the subject.

Joshua Gaylord's 'When We Were Animals' (Mulholland, $26) features an unconventional approach to the topic, skewing the conventions of the coming-of-age story by introducing elements of the supernatural and a Gothic sensibility into the mix. The end result is a compelling read that will likely resonate after all, what's scarier than growing up?

Lumen is a young girl living in a small Midwestern town. For the most part, she has many of the typical concerns regarding the process of growing up. It's just her and her widowed father dealing with the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

However, this unnamed town also has a secret an inexplicable darkness that both lurks beneath the surface and serves as a matter-of-fact way of life. This secret is the mark of the one true rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.

They call it 'breaching.' In this town, when young people reach a certain point a point tangentially connected to the onset of puberty they spend a year or so beholden to their baser, more animalistic instincts during each full moon. They rove in packs through the streets and forests of this sleepy town, raging ids indulging their every sensualistic and violent whim.

A now-adult Lumen with a husband and child of her own looks back on her childhood and relates her story, coming to realize just how much of the person she is now springs forth from the person that she once was. She promised her father that she would never breach; however, some promises can prove very difficult to keep.

This is a town that repeatedly lives through its own twisted Rumspringa, with every young person thrust into an existence that is filled with equal parts uncontrollable madness and exhilarating freedom. Theirs is an insular world, mistrustful of outsiders and unwaveringly accepting of their bizarre and unique condition. There is no explanation of the why behind breaching because no one ever asks for it; the fact that it is simply accepted as a way of life as 'the way things have always been' makes it all the more mysterious.

Using the thoughts of the adult Lumen to frame the experiences of the younger version makes sense, though it occasionally feels as if Adult Lumen appears at the expense of the narrative tension evoked by her expression of memory. Her presence is necessary, lending much-needed perspective to the events of the past by illustrating the oddly skewed woman that Lumen has become, but her through line is generally less engaging than the dark remembrances of her childhood.

Gaylord's prose is compulsively readable, possessed of a palpable momentum the odd time shift notwithstanding. His portrayal of the enigma of adolescence shows a good deal of understanding and empathy, regardless of the literary conventions in which it is sheathed.

At its core, 'When We Were Animals' is a funhouse-mirror look at the rigors of growing up. While its dark conceit certainly exaggerates the process, the feelings at its center ring true. The mysteries of impending adulthood; the pressure to conform to peer standards while still striving to stay true to oneself; the confusion with regards to physical and emotional changes all are here in heightened form.


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