When the delightful Jodie and I decided to read Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was A Rabbit together, we agreed to keep in contact by email over the course of the reading process. Thank goodness we did! My first impressions of the book were dreadful, and I was overwhelmed by the guilty fear that I had condemned us to a real clunker. I was more relieved that I can say when we exchanged our first emails and Jodie wasn’t finding it too bad. There are many ways to appreciate books, just as there are, ahem, many ways to skin a rabbit, and liking a book through another reader’s eyes is a great one. Without her, I think I would have given up on it; with her, our discussions gave me a whole other level from which to consider the novel.
When God Was a Rabbit is a story about a brother and sister, Elly and Joe, who grow up in the 70s with their parents and one of those classic fictional devices, the live-in aunt, in this case an attractive lesbian actress, Nancy, who comes out with a lot of witticisms. The first half of the book concerns their childhood and the string of triumphs and disasters that happen to the family. These come in all shapes and sizes, from a catastrophic nativity play, to a big win on the pools, with child abuse and difficult friendships thrown in. The narrative clips along at quite a pace, the voice is precocious for a child and the emotional tone mostly deadpan. There’s no distinction made between the ‘real life’ events, like Joe’s discovery he is gay and the painful break up with his first boyfriend, from the magical realist ones, for instance, the talking rabbit called God, and Elly’s friend Jenny Penny’s trick (she has a difficult home life with her alcoholic mother) of extracting a 50 pence piece from inside her forearm. The jumble of tragic-comic events, seemingly random, mostly painful and threatening but experienced with the uncomprehending resilience of childhood reminded me of two other stories – Voltaire’s Candide and the Book of Job. In both cases, we’re looking at absurd life journeys, which test the faith and philosophy of the protagonists to the limit. Not good news for me, as I can’t stand either of those stories.
But Jodie could appreciate the silence surrounding the events – ‘gappy fiction (which is a good term for it) – as the places were readers could speculate and wonder, which reminded me that I like gappy fiction too. Rather than resent the book for delivering what felt like a scrambled mess to me, I could start picking the elements apart and wondering at their relation to one another. Magic realism, for instance, was originally a socio-political mode of writing, arising in South America among indigenous people who had been bulldozed by colonising cultures. It was a way to rewrite history from the perspective of the dispossessed, who used folklore, myth and magic to alter events miraculously, or to see beauty and possibility arising out of the most ordinary occurrences. Children aren’t exactly the oppressed of South America, but they do lack power, and often replace it with a firm belief in the possibilities of magical thinking. Magic realism then began to look like a way for the children in this book to bear intolerable sorrows, or account for incomprehensible events, or even sometimes just as distraction in times of trouble. I liked it a lot more in that light.
In the second half of the book, Elly and Joe have grown up and set off into the world. Desperate things keep happening, but when one of them turns out to be 9/11, the narrative finally slows and lingers over the consequences of this event for Elly’s family. Jodie and I both enjoyed the fuller exploration of this part of the story but now it was Jode’s turn to struggle with the strategies the novel adopted and in particular, the semi-miraculous resolution of the narrative, which pulled a happy ending out of a hat, even if the rabbit was by now long gone. Jodie had trouble with (and this is a genius term which I am adopting from now on) the ‘hand wavey method of storytelling’ in which ‘terribly convenient things happened at terribly convenient times.’ This is undeniably true, and it made us look back over the whole of the narrative, trying to figure out what to make of the mix of tragic and comic events, the level of meaning we were invited (or not) to deduce from them and the uneven realism of the novel that dipped in and out of the magical.
At one level, I felt this novel was simply out of control of its events. For instance, Joe’s first boyfriend, Charlie, is kidnapped and held ransom in the first half of the narrative, his ears and his hands chopped off and sent back to his horrified relatives. And yet when Charlie turns up in the second half he seems whole and able-bodied, certainly no mention of prosthetic hands when he picks up a coffee cup, say. Am I supposed to imagine reconstructive surgery? The tone from the first half of the narrative discourages this sort of rational thinking, though; it invites the reader to marvel at events, but not necessarily to understand them. The second half of the narrative enacts resolution and closure and lots of meaning about the love of a good family. In other words, the two halves are asking for very different reading experiences. What began to strike me about When God Was a Rabbit was its determination to bring conflicting things together: the arbitrary and random were intertwined with the artificial and contrived, the tragic and the comic go hand in hand, the youthful voice of the narrator is merged with a highly adult, sensitive perspective. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it feels jarring.
As Jodie wrote to me, we kept coming back to the question of how real (or not) the narrative felt, and what the consequences of that (magical) reality did to the way we read the happy ending. The narrative tried really hard to be poignant – too hard, I felt. And the ending was supposed to give us faith that no matter what happened, everything would come good in time (shades here of Voltaire’s everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds). But I think you can either have a romp, where the reader ends up laughing at dreadful things because no one is taking them seriously, or you can have an emotionally affecting narrative where dreadful things happen and the reader bonds with the characters forced to adapt to or process events. When you’ve got both going on, with magic realism thrown in for good measure, well, then the author is trying to do way too much. This was a big bestselling book, with a hefty advance for the author – did I enjoy it? No, not really. But thanks to Jodie, did I find it interesting? I most certainly did. The moral of the story is, when you come across a book that really taxes your understanding, take a Jodie along with you – it improves the experience immeasurably.