Discussion location: The Lost & Found (Previously Bennett’s  Hill), now an expensive but pretty ode to a Victorian conservatory/garden.

Chosen by: Zoe

Reason for choice: Despite maintaining that she doesn’t remember choosing it, we recall that she saw a picture of it on an advert, googled it and found it was in the Amazon top 20.

Discussion points: Where were you when Princess Diana died, and on 9/11?

Review:

The debut novel of Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit, has a title and front cover that instantly conjures interest and intrigue.  It earned Winman the accolade of New Writer of the Year, and was described by The Times as “a superb debut” and having received a plethora of glowing reviews from the Guardian, the Observer etc, the expectance levels and potential of this novel were high from the outset.

Indeed, the first half of this novel seems to live up to its great expectations.  Split into two distinct parts, the first half is an exploration of the protagonist, Elly’s childhood, whilst the second half covers her adult life.  Part 1 is innocent, humorous and promising.  The reader is introduced to Elly’s unconventional family dynamic, for example, her father accepting that his sister is in love with his wife; colourful characters such as Ginger, and Arthur who believes his cause of death will be a coconut, and the close, supportive relationship with her older brother, Joe. There are also the interesting interactions with God, the rabbit whom Elly converses with, and the unusual Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend.

The tone of the first half of the novel is jovial and amusing, with Elly’s identifiable childhood recollections, such as having to wear clothes because somebody had bought them for you.  There are also humorous scenes like the nativity play, which wonderfully capture the naivety of childhood thought and perceptions. The honest writing style reads like a journal and seems to carry well the persona of Elly’s youth, in a refreshingly un-detailed, childlike manner of stating the facts and moving on. At this point, the reader has hope for Elly, and although they might have no idea what the point of the story is, they do not expect the sudden change of Part 2.

The novel recommences when Ellie is a dysfunctional twenty-something with few relationships outside of her own family and is an outsider. Unlike the honest, journalistic style of the younger Elly who is developing her persona, the older Elly is almost absent, narrating her detached observations of her own life through an observer perspective, with little reflective thought or explanation for the events occurring.  For example, having missed the transitional years of Elly’s life and the experiences during it, a sudden gratuitous sex scene is completely out of place and unexplained.

It almost seems that Part 1 and Part 2 are two entirely different books. Whilst the first half is epitomised by innocence and subtle humour, the second half is a bombardment of events and action with little description or reflection. Whilst the first half develops Elly’s character, the second half is devoid of her personality.  Though the novel accurately reflects the innocence and magic of childhood compared to the harsh reality of adulthood, there seems to be an unexplainably large divide between the two halves of the novel, where Elly’s childhood and adulthood characters are entirely unrelated; making the novel disjointed.

Despite the lack of explicit reasons for Elly’s sudden character change (or lack of character), there is the implicit idea that the abuse Elly suffered by neighbour, Mr. Golan, is somehow attributable to her detached adult self; bringing up the almost commonplace issue of child abuse in modern novels. Though the lack of detail and subtlety regarding the child abuse was particularly welcome and better not dwelt upon, it seems all too prevalent as a rationale for “the broken adult” which we see in the second half of this novel, and Winman seems to have fallen into the trap of needing to attribute a cause to the isolation and melancholy of her adult protagonist (remember The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Like the aforementioned Perks, When God Was a Rabbit has an almost ‘checklist’ approach to content, with Winman attempting to cover too many sensationalist topics, including suicide, child abuse, sexuality, kidnapping, the supernatural, murder, prison, 9/11 and so on. It seems that9/11 is a popular topic for current media, and parts of the novel are reminiscent of 2010 film Remember Me, and although the treatment of 9/11 was tactful, the novel’s appendix reveals the striking similarity between Winman’s own experience of 9/11 and that of Elly’s, which seems lazy of the author.

Covering a timespan of several decades, the political and sociological backdrop of the novel is identifiable for many readers, and the family’s attempts to find Joe when he is missing is highly emotive.  Although the reactions to these events are realistic, they are in unrealistic situations, which are far too unlikely to happen to one family.  Moreover, the ending of the novel is implausibly happy, with Joe regaining his memory and Arthur regaining his sight by a coconut.

Overall, the first half of the novel was promising, amusing and charmingly well written, but was disjointed by a second half which was disappointingly absent of the character we had become interested by in the first half.  The events which occurred were too incredible, too coincidental and the author tried too hard to cover too broad a range of subjects. This was clearly a debut in its lack of refine and editing (and the odd choice of title due to the lack of God or the rabbit compared to other things featured in the novel), but holds promise for Winman’s second novel.

Overall rating: 7/10

An enjoyable read if you can ignore the overwhelming level of content and enjoy the relationships portrayed.

Advertisements