When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

23rd Feb 2011


Comparisons to Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum have been bandied about all over the place, and the rights have been sold in eleven countries and counting around the world.

A story about Elly, her brother Joe, Elly’s kooky childhood best friend Jenny Penny and a Belgian hare named God, the first half recounts their quintessentially English seventies childhood, complete with a hilariously ramshackle school nativity and a raucous Jubilee street party.

Their childhood idyll is counterbalanced with a darkness that they don’t yet fully understand, and it is this juxtaposition related in lyrical language and deft, subtle descriptions that gives the book its bittersweet magic.

From the next door neighbour with ‘blue rheumy eyes’ and a concentration camp I.D. number that looks freshly inked on to his ‘thin translucent skin’ to Jenny Penny’s wayward mother, all the horrors of the wider world are observed and recounted via Elly’s innocent and idealistic voice.

Despite some problems with plot and pacing, the writing itself is where the author shines, and establishes her as one to watch next time around.
Her family’s assorted eccentricities are described with brevity of language that poignantly captures the key aspects of each character and then lets the reader imagine the rest.

In the second half of the novel, they’re all grown up. But even in adulthood, Elly is defined by her relationships with Joe and Jenny Penny. And in the aftermath of 9/11, there’s a whole host of heartbreaks, anxieties and insecurities for them all to overcome.

A love letter to the enduring loyalties and resilience of dysfunctional families and friendships, there’s an overabundance of endearing but bizarre characters that soon become integral to Joe and Elly’s family tapestry.

While they are all intriguing and engaging in their own way, the elliptical language and narrative means all you ever get is a glimpse at a time into their lives through a shifting kaleidoscope.

While this might reflect that they are all have their own lives, pasts and futures, it prevents the reader from forming an emotional attachment and that leaves the end coming across somewhat anticlimactic and hollow.

Similarly, the book touches on so many ‘issues’ that it feels overwhelming and implausible, although again, that might be a conscious choice intended to reflect the numerous challenges encountered in contemporary society.

In spite of all that, though, the original and distinctive voice in When God Was a Rabbit means it’s certain to win its fair share of fans. Published by Headline on March 3rd, you can pre-order it in hardback for £8.70, or get the Kindle edition for £6.99.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Romantics, idealists, and avid readers of David NichollsOne Day or After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell.

Other recommended reading: For another endearingly innocent child narrator and a story that takes in the personal impact of terrorism, try Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, also out next week.

Jane Bradley