About the Book1968. The year Paris takes to the streets. The year Martin Luther King loses his life for a dream. The year Eleanor Maud Portman is born.
Young Elly's world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe.
Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning when a single, earth-shattering event threatens to destroy their bond forever.
Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms.
"She was comforted by no one. Everyone had a story of grief. Everyone else's was worse than yours."
Sarah Winman’s debut novel is a rather different sort of work. For one thing, there isn’t really a plot. There is no building up of tension as we are lead to a thrilling dénouement which ties all the loose pieces together. This is not to say that the book is bad – on the contrary, I enjoyed it and found it quite satisfying. The novel is compelling in that it is very character driven and one is constantly wondering what else can befall our protagonist and her somewhat unconventional family.
When God Was a Rabbit is a story narrated by Elly, and focuses on her childhood in London and beyond. The focal points of her life are her brother Joe, who protects and loves her fiercely; and her best friend Jenny Penny, whose mother is constantly running from one boyfriend to another. Beginning early on, Joe buys Elly a Belgian hare after she inadvertently reveals a horrible secret to him. She chooses to call this new friend god (yes, lowercase). The book is littered with humorous moments such as this in order to alleviate the misery, including a hilarious Nativity scene which Elly and her classmates attempt to re-enact, resulting in some laugh out loud scenes.
As Elly grows up and continues to explore life, her world changes around her. She experiences losing contact with Jenny when her parents win money and decide to move to the country and open a bed and breakfast. Her brother settles down in New York and she makes new friends. Along the way, Winman uses historic events to map out Elly’s life, such as Princess Diana’s death, or 9/11. The author doesn’t use these events for social commentary, but rather as markers along the road. “This is what we were doing when John Lennon was shot”; the sort of comment all of us make. These moments don’t define her, but help Elly further ponder her life and those around her.
What I find most interesting is Winman’s tone throughout the book. She deals with very dark, heavy subject matter – abuse, suicide, sexuality, cancer, to name a few – and yet the reader never feels burdened by these difficult themes. Her tone remains light, nostalgic, and almost carefree, sometimes satirical. I wondered why she chose this style and concluded that perhaps because she is capturing life as it happened. No one can appreciate how much others suffer until one suffers greatly oneself. And so, because we cannot ever fully comprehend or appreciate the scope of the destructive forces in Elly’s life, we cannot share her grief and heartache completely. Life goes on, and so we watch the story unfold with interest but not with the depth of awareness the reader usually experiences. I’m sure this is on purpose – it creates a realistic vantage for the reader, just as we watch a news story unfold and feel momentary shock for the people involved. But we are not completely drawn in – we do not know those individuals; we can never fully know them.
The reader is subjected to nuggets of wisdom from many of the characters as we realise that Elly’s tale is about life – not just hers, but everyone’s. Yours, mine, that fellow down the road. This is a story about the eccentricities of family; the heartache and heartbreak of love and life; the bond between brother, sister, and best friend; but most importantly, I feel this book is about hope. Through all the tragedy and disappointment, Winman shows us that there is good in the world; that we can go on in spite of how terrible life can be. It is about the endurance of the human spirit, however subtly it may be portrayed. And if that isn’t true, isn’t that what one wants to hear anyway?
- Review by Bradley Lutz
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"But ultimately who cared? Truth, as he always said, was overrated; nobody ever won prizes for telling the truth."Perhaps Sarah Winman will.
- Review by Bradley Lutz
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