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.
When The Moon Was Ours had come to my attention even before it won the 2016 Tiptree Award, given that Anna-Marie McLemore’s novel features trans characters, immigrant characters, and magical realism; the Tip win just raised its profile for me, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it…
When The Moon Was Ours is one of those books that really speaks to me as a trans reader. McLemore’s narrative isn’t solely concerned with trans narratives, though one of the central characters is an immigrant mixed-race trans boy (a kind of character we see all too rarely in fiction generally and speculative fiction particularly); but it’s the narrative of transness that really spoke to me, so it’s where we’ll start. McLemore threads throughout the novel the way Samir feels about his body, and about his gender; When The Moon Was Ours talks about gender dysphoria and the disconnect trans people can feel from their bodies, as well as the way some embrace theirs. It talks about the social stigma towards trans people, and how we internalise that, and how that shame manifests in our self-image. It talks about trans people’s sexuality, about the conflict or congruence between anatomy and emotion. McLemore really cuts through the normal cliches of a trans story, and instead tells something true, recognisable, and because of it, heartbreaking.
This is a book that is about much more than its trans protagonist, though. When The Moon Was Ours also has a cis female protagonist, marked as different from her community by her origin (falling out of a water tower) and by the roses that grow from her wrist. Miel has a tragic backstory, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book; as well as a present which has both its beauties, like her mother-figure Aracely, and her romance with Samir, and its threats, like the Bonner sisters. These aren’t contradictory, although they are in tension at times; it’s the tension that gives rise to the story, and McLemore plays it perfectly, with the teenage emotionality given free rein to really be extreme and powerful.
Every character in When The Moon Was Ours has their struggle; there are only really eight major characters – Samir, Miel, Samir’s mother, Aracely, and the Bonner sisters – but most of the minor characters, such as the Bonner parents and Miel’s own parents, are fleshed out as well. Those we encounter once tend to be a little more one-dimensional and simplistic, but they are really props for the eight core members of the cast to interact with and around; those eight members are intensely real and human, each with secrets of their own, and with their own different, difficult pasts and mysteries.
If When The Moon Was Ours has a flaw, it’s in the way it deals with its magical realism. While some aspects – the rose, for instance – are beautiful and powerful, others seem more laboured, and drawn out; the glass pumpkins of the Bonner farm are strange and beautiful, but little more than a pretty symbol, and a metaphor that really wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything – or get meaningfully addressed, leaving McLemore’s idea a little half-baked. This is a tendency throughout the book, where symbolism trumps anything else, just layering it on without consideration for what that would actually mean for the characters, or anything else.
This is slightly undercut by the prose of the novel. McLemore’s style is very poetic and flowing; When The Moon Was Ours isn’t told as mimetic fiction, which means some of the disjoints, and some of the excessively-heavy, underbaked symbolism isn’t too jarring, because the novel as a whole treats itself as a piece of folklore. There are references, which feel at times a little too self-conscious, to the way Miel and Samir have become myth in the village; the novel tends to forget those between times, and while poetic, is essential a straightforward fabulist narrative. The mixed approach weakens the effect of either of these styles a little, although the language is still beautiful and penetrating.
In the end, though, When The Moon Was Ours tore my heart out and handed it to me on a platter as a bare, naked, vulnerable, beautiful thing. If you’re trans, it may well do the same for you. McLemore has written a fantastic, beautiful romance, and one well worthy of her Tiptree win.
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