Recently, I had to attend a funeral. A particularly sad one, where the usual societal platitudes to skirt over the pain don’t work, aren’t right, don’t suit. But the occasion of this funeral generated the opportunity for a somewhat dark reunion with an old school friend. We’ve kept in touch online only, both readers, exchanging book recommendations and shared thrills at something like the latest Robert Galbraith. Deciding I was the right kind of recipient, she took the opportunity to give me a copy of When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, one of her favourite books; she buys a second hand copy whenever she finds one, to pass onto the next reader.
So being given this book, at that moment in that place, puts a lot of pressure on the novel itself. I started it a couple of weeks later and it took me less than a weekend to tear through. It made me laugh so much and the end was just so tight and heartbreaking in the right way. The blurb says, vaguely, that this is a book about a brother and a sister, about childhood and growing up and all those things that come in life, and love in all its forms.
And I’m afraid I can’t give you much more than that. The heart of this book is in its details but stepping back it is a grand, sweeping tale. It is a life. Elly is a contented, loved baby, born into the year of the Tet offensive, the year of the Paris student riots, the year Martin Luther King died. We watch Elly grow through her own eyes. Her mother being struck by grief as her own parents died in a freak accident. Her brother and their deep, quiet friendship. Her father, overthinking his own luck into a personal darkness. It is kind of astonishing, watching Elly evolve. Over the few hours in this book she really does subtly and believably transform.
What made this book resonate so well is that it emerges and grows with the reader. We do not land smack-bang into a perfect life, a privileged world, a fully formed character. Simultaneously, this is what makes it hard to write about. There is an incredible unspoken strength in Elly’s parents, a unique bond; but this is not always the case. Yes, Jenny and Elly are inseparable friends, imprinted upon one another; but this ebbs and flows over a lifetime. The relationship between Elly and her brother Joe is so vital, so essential; and yet there are times when he puts a world between them. God is a rabbit, but is only alive for some of the book. This family is defined by who they take in, but in the beginning it is just the nuclear group. The sea, the forest, the river are so essential but they are only discovered later in childhood. The family home is at the centre of this rag-tag family, but they only found it a third of the way in.
Winman is a beautiful writer, and is understated in her skill at pitching Elly’s narration. Her responsiveness to the world around her, her openness on the edge of the logically impossible, her full-heartedness with others, rend captivating writing as well as a whole and magnetic lead character. She is smart and a delight. I loved Elly even in her isolation and sadness and anger; my heart broke with her little girl adventurousness and loneliness.
This truly is a beautiful book: one of those ones that is like life itself. It has those joys and histories and sadnesses and is so hard to clearly explain. Reading it is like gaining something, an experience you can hold close.