When the Moon Was Ours
Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
When the Moon Was Ours is about secrets.
There’s a lot of magic in this book, too, the kind of strange, commonplace everyday weirdness that’s typical of the magical realism genre.
For example, one of our main characters, Miel, grows roses out of her wrist. Yeah, real ones. This is one of those places that being a science fiction fan ruins a lot of lyrical poetic moments. I’m pretty sure the roses, though real, are supposed to be a giant metaphor for Miel’s own past, her secrets, her strange metamorphosis from lost girl to water to girl again, but I spent a lot of my time thinking weird thoughts like, “so… if it’s on her right wrist, does it get gross when she goes to the bathroom and wipes herself?” and “You’d think the petals would be bruised, knocking into everything and getting crushed under shirt sleeves.”
But, that’s not how magical realism works, so, suffice to say, Meil grows roses on her wrist FOR REASONS and FOR REASONS we don’t talk about them practically, except when we do.
Miel’s best friend is Samir, Sam, or sometimes Moon, because FOR REASONS, he paints various colored paper lantern moons—complete with all the Marianas, etc—and hangs them all over town. Back when Miel whe appeared in the empty field the day the town knocked over the old water tower (and started screaming in fear at the pumpkins FOR REASONS), Sam was the only one who would approach her.
Now Miel is the only one with whom Sam trusts his deepest secret.
Things are going along fine until the creepy Bonner sisters become convinced that they’re losing their magical ability to lure any boy into their clutches. (Why do they have this power? REASONS. Just roll with it!) But, for this reason of their fading magic, they decide they need Miel’s roses, which she usually sacrifices to the mother river spirit. The sisters contrive to betray Sam and his secret in order to coerce Miel into giving up her roses.
Frankly, I think this book would have been a hot mess if it wasn’t for Sam.
Sam’s secret and his life story are very much anchored in the real world. Sam a Bacha Posh, a real phenomenon among the Afghan and Pakistani, where girls live as boys. And his desire to keep and name his secret…that moment and his uncertainty are fucking phenomenal and feels real. It’s the heart of everything and more, and is worth all the roses.
Sam’s story elevates this murky, poetic garble into something transformative and powerful.
I loved this book, but I loved it mostly for Sam. The roses? I could have done without them, they never made sense and I don’t know what the point of them was besides plot coupon, but without them there would be no Sam. So I’ll tolerate them because his character is embedded in this world and, despite its flaws, some parts of this world are beautiful and work and make me want to fall into it forever and never come out.
Despite the roses and the murky magic, this book is a wonderful, worthwhile read.