Published by Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: May 17, 2011
Genres: Childhood, Debut, Fiction, Literary
One of the best gifts of reading is not only discovering a new writer you love, but learning that they have written previous books, opening up the possibility of more wonderful reading. This was the case with Sarah Winman. I read her novel, Tin Man, and it was exactly the kind of simple but poetic prose that draws me in. So, when I saw it was her second novel I knew I wanted to read her debut, When God Was a Rabbit. Actually, with that title I wanted to read the book no matter who wrote it.
The novel encompasses a family with two children—Joe and Eleanor (Elly). Joe is five years older than Elly and is her protector. So much so that when she is sad about not having a friend, he gets her a rabbit. A rabbit she names God. What follows is their story as told by Elly, lived out through Winman’s ability to gorgeously capture the humor and pain in the large and small moments of life. When God Was a Rabbit follows the two from their childhood in Cornwall, living in the B&B their parents run, to their grown-up lives—Joe in NYC on a straightforward path in finance while Elly moves in circles around the family home, never quite settling anywhere. They may be thousands of miles apart but for Elly, Joe is
The witness of my soul, my shadow in childhood, when dreams were small and attainable for all. When sweets were a penny and god was a rabbit.
Elly and Joe are at the center of When God Was a Rabbit but Winman’s understanding of human nature in all its permutations and complexity is a gift that makes every character in the novel glow with vitality. There is aunt Nancy, a glamorous actress; Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend; Charlie, Joe’s closest companion, and Arthur, an elderly man who lives in a cottage on their property. I feel as if Winman must have a gorgeously rich inner life to produce such nuance in her characters. They’re flawed and sometimes problematic, but they make your heart ache with understanding.
This is not to say When God was a Rabbit is a whimsical, sunshine and rainbows novel. It’s a novel of childhood and the way things fall away. Either naturally—a beloved friend moves away, or unnaturally—something is taken from us that can’t be replaced. Secrets that leave scars. As Joe and Elly grow up their bond is the one thing that seems unshakable…until events upend their lives and their relationship is shattered. For Elly it is unfathomable
“You see, you were the only person who knew everything. Because you were there. And you were my witness. And you made sense of the fucked-up mess I become every now and then. And I could at least look at you and think, at least he knows why I am the way I am…But I can’t do that anymore and I feel so lonely.”
Even as these extreme events unfold, Winman doesn’t resort to cliché or syrupy solutions. Instead, she quietly portrays the inner reserves called in when outer strength isn’t enough. That she does so with an acerbic wit gives the novel a welcome bit of bite. Which is all to say, When God Was a Rabbit is a quirky blend of the exotic and the recognizable, perfectly proportioned for the kind of reading I love.
“Memories, no matter how small or inconsequential, are the pages that define us.”