Pub. Date: 04/10/2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.Magical Realism is the best genre. Authors take our everyday reality and infuse it with even more magic than it already contains. It can be the smallest thing, a ray of sunlight or a falling leaf, or the biggest, a love declaration or a death, and authors elevate it beyond our wildest imagination. For me, MR novels are usually the ones that are the most painful, the most true to human nature. We grasp onto the small moments in life that both elucidate and mystify us, that provide answers to questions we hadn't asked ourselves yet. When the Moon Was Ours opens up how you can see the world, allows you to add a bit more magic to the every day.
When the Moon Was Ours is almost a meta-narrative, the first chapter imagining how the story of the novel is passed down, how it changes over time and what is added and what is forgotten. It immediately sinks the reader into the world of the fantastic and magical. Most cities, towns and villages have tales from long ago, about its citizens and their troubles. McLermore sets her story up as one of these, but then goes into telling the "real story". Miel and Sam are fascinating characters. Miel has roses growing out of her wrist and her appearance in the village is still a source of rumours. Sam paints moons and is as much of a mystery to the village as Miel. McLemore's characters are deeply human and she finds the magic in that. She treats them with care, always allowing for their feelings and thoughts to take centre stage. Even when writing a sex scene, she never takes advantage of them. It was heart-warming to read a novel this gentle. It is one of the few novels I've read that truly fits the Madeleine L'Engle quote in my header.
Every once in a while I find myself really wanting to write about a theme or topic in a novel, but I feel it might be considered a spoiler. Often I can find my way around it, but in this case I don't think I can find that way. Hence, here is your SPOILER WARNING, please skip this paragraph if you want to go into this novel as beautifully unaware as I did. Ready? Here we go. There has been a strong call for fiction to be more representative, to spend as much time on PoC as on white characters. When the Moon Was Ours is a great example of how this can be achieved. Miel is Latina and Sam is Pakistani-Italian, making them both outsiders in their quiet American village. While the colour of their skin is not the only thing they are defined by, McLemore does make it clear how their origins affect their day to day life. McLemore shows a respect for the cultures and cultural traditions she employs in her book, never exploiting them or putting them down. And on top of this, Sam is a trans boy. He started dressing as a boy to become a 'bacha posh', to look after his mother, but finds himself dreading the expected return to being a woman, since it's simply not what he is. (For more on this, I'd recommend the fascinating The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.) McLemore treats these themes incredibly carefully and with a lot of understanding, partially coming from her own life. When the Moon Was Ours is an amazing example of how YA literature, or literature overall, can and should be more inclusive, because ranging outside of the expected and stereotypical Western story lines allows for novels to be both informing, beautiful and sensitive.
McLemore is an amazing author. Her writing flows almost effortlessly, belying the enormous effort that goes into this type of writing. It is opulent and luscious, beautifully descriptive and intensely emotional, yet it never feels over done. McLemore treats her characters so gently and emphatically that it almost hurts. At times the plot of the novel can be a little bit hard to follow, but that is largely because the novel is not driven by its plot. Instead, it is the characters and their growth and development which takes centre stage. It's never entirely clear what is real and what is an illusion, what "really" happened and what felt like it happened. For readers wanting a straightforward narrative this will probably not work, but for those ready to sink into magical language and letting the story flow over them, When the Moon Was Ours is the perfect read. A lot of Fantasy or Magical Realism novels force the magical and the fantastical into their novels, making it almost unbelievable in how intensely the novels want us to believe it. McLemore almost leaves it up completely to the reader to accept it all. Do you want to read Miel's roses as a metaphor then you can do that without losing the magic of the novel. By giving her readers this choice, she allows them to follow her everywhere she offers to take them. I personally cannot wait to reread this novel because I can feel in my bones it will have more to offer upon every reread.
I give this novel...
When the Moon Was Ours is a magical and beautiful novel. Anne-Marie McLemore has won a new fan in me with her stunning take on YA fiction and I will be throwing this book at one as evidence that diversity in fiction elevates the whole medium. I'd recommend this to fans of Magical Realism, LGBT fiction and anyone who loves beautiful writing.