When The Moon Was Ours Review
When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore: My Review
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
To the boys who get called girls, the girls who get called boys, and those who live outside these worlds. To those called names, and those searching for names of their own. To those who live on the edges, and in the spaces in between. I wish for you every light in the sky.
I'm really sad to say that I didn't enjoy When The Moon Was Ours nearly as much as I'd hoped to. This is really my first venture into the realm of magical realism novels and to be honest I wasn't really too sure what I was expecting, but I've come out the other side realising that there is certainly a unique way in which books in this genre are written and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it.
Starting on a positive note, this book is written beautifully. Every single page dripped with golden prose, evoking all the senses and woven together into honest and intimate passages that address some very tender topics. There is a scene of on-page sex within the first two chapters which definitely caught me off guard but had an unfalteringly respectful, delicate approach and was not at all sensationalized nor glossed over. Anne-Marie McLemore definitely has a way with words that is highly imaginative, alluring and hauntingly magical. However, the lyrical way in which the story is written was also the biggest downfall of this book for me - I had a fair few problems with it.
To start with, the descriptions were FAR too long, overwhelmingly so, and incredibly tedious to the point where I began to lose faith and interest in the characters almost completely - in fact, I was close to DNFing this book around halfway through because I could just feel my mind becoming distracted after lines and lines of similes upon similes. It almost felt like the author was trying to fill pages with words for the sake of it, describing the same thing over and over, and never actually getting to the point. Because of this, the pacing was slowed so much that there ended up being virtually no plot at all, or at least not one I could follow - which brings me onto my next point. I'm not usually a reader who struggles to get a grip on a plot line, but I spent the majority of my time reading this book being frustratingly confused. The problem here lay with the ethereal nature of the writing as it caused an enormous uncertainly for me over what was actually happening and what was metaphorical, especially at the beginning, so it took me far longer than I would have liked to get used to the world which heavily detracted from my overall enjoyment of the story. I also finished the book bursting with questions that were never answered - Why did the pumpkins turn to glass? Why weren't people freaked out by it? Were the Bonner sisters actually evil witches? I really could not tell you. (I didn't really have a clue what was happening with the Bonner sisters' plot line which was really upsetting as they had the potential to be super fascinating villains, but fell short of the depth of character needed to fulfill this).
The characters were also a part of the novel that I felt very conflicted about. There is a fantastical strangeness to all of them, most noticeably the two main protagonists: Miel who once spilled out of a water tower and has roses growing from her wrists, and Sam who paints and hangs moons on the trees of the town. Miel and Sam have a special bond; we immediately learn the backstory of their childhood friendship then see that in reality this has developed into something much more. A large part of the story is driven exclusively by their relationship and the obstacles (more specifically, the Bonner sisters) that get in the way of it, yet I didn't feel nearly as connected to or moved by their feelings for each other as I truly wanted to - mostly because I once again didn't really understand it. One moment they were fighting, the next moment they'd made up until the following chapter where they weren't talking again... it all didn't really make much sense to me, almost like it was a bit too unconventional to get my head around. Therefore I really struggled to engage with and feel a lot of emotion for their journey as lovers which was a huge shame considering how it was written about so beautifully.
Moreover, I found Miel to be a pretty annoying main character and felt there was some kind of barrier between her and I. I can't really put my finger on why this was, I think I just struggled to understand her motivations a lot of the time and thought overall she was quite melodramatic and strange. Hints at her tragic past are made in pretty much every single chapter yet I still couldn't decipher what had happened to her mother and how on earth she ended up stuck in a water tower for years and how this was supposed to shape her character. On the other hand, however, I really liked Sam and his story definitely struck a chord with me with how deep and thought-provoking it was. This was my very first book with a transgender character at the forefront, so I was able to learn so much from Sam and the gender identity struggle that is integral to his character. The way he struggled with his body not conforming to who he wanted to be and his confusion about his role was very well-written and unique to witness. The authenticity of this representation is validated by the poignant author's note at the end where McLemore reveals how the story is loosely based off the battles with identity personally experienced by herself and her transgender husband. This is the thing I learned from loving a transgender boy who took years to say his own name: that waiting with someone existing in that quiet, wondering space with them when they need it, is worth all the words we have in us.
Probably the most admirable and refreshing part of this novel was the amount of rich cultural diversity breathed into the characters - Miel is a Latina girl, Sam is an Indian-Pakistani boy - and laced within the story's anatomy. There's an element of Spanish folklore with the legend of la llorona, a mythical spirit-woman who drowned her own children and (I believe) is supposed to align with Miel's own mother who haunts the nearby river. Then in the foreground of Sam's character we have the concept of bacha posh, something that was completely unknown to me, which is a cultural practice in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in which families who have daughters but no sons dress a daughter up as a boy so they can act as a son. As an adult, a bacha posh traditionally returns to living as a girl, now a woman - but Sam wants to remain a boy. From the other side of the world, it's easy to pass off this discomfort as just a product of that culture. But the growing weight of expectation upon Sam to step back into the role of a female versus knowing how he wants to live and the name he wants to be called is raw and well-defined, and hugely impactful.
Overall, When The Moon Was Ours is a novel that undoubtedly celebrates diversity and acceptance within 280 pages of opulent prose. However, it was the frustrating ambiguity of the story line and relentless struggle of deducing the literal from the figurative that prevented this book from being a 4-5 star read and a book that I could truly love.