Newest Review: ... begins as she grows up in 60s / 70s Britain and her description of a 'normal' family life is very entertaining. Elly is very close to her ... more
A Book of Two Halves
When God Was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman
Member Name: rosebud2001
When God Was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman
Advantages: The first part is an enjoyable and whimsical delight
Disadvantages: The second part isn't as good
Having recently read, and been bowled over by, "One Day" by David Nicolls, I was looking for another book that might convey an era I recall from my past and reference that in a coming of age book. Of course this was a mistake - I should have switched to reading an entirely different kind of book and left reminisces about the past behind for a while. Instead, whilst browsing in Sainsburys for a book to buy to fit in with their two books for £7 offer, I found myself drawn to Sarah Winman's "If God Were a Rabbit".
It didn't help that in amongst the usual quotes from critics included in the book was one which likened the book to "One Day". Seduced by such praise, I bought the book, and found myself reading it almost as soon as I got it home.
"When God Was a Rabbit" is Sarah Winman's first novel. She was born in Essex in 1964 and trained as an actress. She was a jobbing actress for many years until she decided to turn her hand to writing.
Elly Portman lives with her parents and her brother Joe in Essex. She is a curious yet quiet child who struggles to make friends. Into this world comes Jenny Penny, who is destined to be her best friend, despite Jenny's chaotic family background which contrasts sharply with Elly's relatively calm household.
The book tells Elly's story in two parts - with her childhood covered in detail in part one which encompasses 1968 to 1980. In that section we learn of the particularly close bond Elly shares with her brother and are introduced to God - who is Elly's pet Belgian hare.
Part two covers the period from 1994 to 2002 and feels like a reassessment of the relationships Elly has described from childhood. Circumstances have changed for several of the characters but the bonds appear to be as strong as ever.
~~What I Thought~~
I was drawn into this book almost immediately - there was something rather captivating and appealing about Elly and her family. Winman draws some wonderful characters but the book maintains an almost whimsical feel and it's this whimsy which is both the best thing about the book and the worst thing about it.
Elly's parents are beautifully drawn - her father a man who goes from enthusiastic defence lawyer to broken man over the course of a few weeks and one trial and a mother who comes across as the mother we would all wish to have - caring, considerate and also great fun.
Elly herself is a wonderful creation - a child who questions authority and is considered an outsider by her peers. When she finally encounters the equally curious Jenny Penny an enduring friendship is born. The enduring bond in the book however is that between Elly and her brother Joe and deals with her dawning realisation that Joe is gay and how as a child she just accepts this without quibble.
Similarly Joe's parents don't seem to have any issue with their son's sexuality - although the fact their father's sister is a proudly out lesbian might help explain this.
In amongst a cast of colourful characters Winman tells a story which covers sexual abuse and parental neglect (in the case of Jenny Penny) and also captures the disintegration of Elly's father which culminates in a win on the football pools which leads to a move away from Essex to rural Cornwall.
The "god" of the title is the pet rabbit Joe gives to Elly - a rabbit Elly believes talks to her. The conversations she has with god are utterly believable - no doubt because you are reading these from the perspective of a child.
Winman's prose is enjoyable - in particular in the first part of the book - and she perfectly captures a view of the world through the eyes of a child. As such the whimsical tone works very well, despite the fact as a reader you do have to suspend disbelief at how much the hand of outrageous fortune touches the Portman family and their friends.
In amongst this Joe falls in love with his school chum Charlie and his heartbreak at the end of this affair is palpable through Elly's eyes. Winman is capable of capturing the deep love and rock solid bond between brother and sister but also the helplessness of a child who after being protected by her own brother following a revelation of sexual abuse finds herself unable to help mend his broken heart.
The cast of characters who pass through the book do remind me of "One Day" but Winman isn't able to make them as memorable as Nicolls did in his book so while Jenny Penny and her sluttish mother do stick with you there are other characters who are less memorable and at times I had to go back to remind myself of who someone was. Winman quite obviously likes the eccentric and as such the book is filled with eccentricity.
There's also a tendency on Winman's part to resort to stereotypes and this is probably most evident when she is describing Arthur, an elderly gay man who comes to stay at the family's B&B in Cornwall and his female friend Ginger. Arthur is rather camp, has cutting wit and is outrageous for his age. I have encountered stacks of characterisations of older gay men in books like this before and it became a little tiresome. His female friend Ginger was also used as a comic, if predictable, foil to him and it came as no surprise to me when she was described by Winman doing wonderful Shirley Bassey impersonations. She did, to her credit, stop short of having Arthur do these impersonations but although both characters were likeable, they didn't really ring true for me.
Arthur's only saving grace as a character was his ability to carry the whimsy of Part One over into Part Two which is desperately in need of something to lighten it up. In this section we deal with murder, death and disappearance, much of it set amongst the backdrop of 9/11.
Winman writes in notes at the back of the book that she was criticised for using 9/11 as a setting in the book but by the time it became obvious Joe was going to be in New York on that fateful date in the book I wasn't in the least surprised - how could the reader be when they had already been told that Charlie was kidnapped and held hostage in Dubai, that the Portman family had won the pools and that John Lennon had been killed on Elly's birthday? It all seems a little convenient but because of the whimsical nature of much of the writing I didn't find it odd.
Nor is it distasteful - there are obviously some painful reminders contained in the prose but there is nothing that caused offence - just an author using an extraordinary backdrop which somehow fitted within her extraordinary story.
What I didn't enjoy was the graphic and coarse sex scene Winman included using 9/11 as a backdrop. Elly picks up a man in a bistro - which is fine. The language Winman uses to describe their brief encounter is as erotic as swimming across a frozen lake however and I found it out of place in amongst a book which had previously described sexual encounters in a far more amusing manner. I appreciate the backdrop isn't something to laugh at and Winman is clearly using this encounter as a metaphor for the feelings of loss and loneliness felt by so many in the city at the time but it didn't work for me.
As the book limps towards its conclusion the only thing that kept me reading was wondering what had happened to Joe in the dark days following 9/11 - even Jenny Penny's situation starts to drag a bit.
This isn't in the same league as "One Day - there are elements of Nicholls' book in here but it lacks the beating heart and more importantly, the writing skills that Nicholls possesses. Winman isn't capable of making her story really believable in the way Nicholls did with One Day and her characters are not as honest, or as memorable either.
There's a distinct lack of realism in the book too - which didn't really bother me in Part One but once Part Two kicked in and time seems to have made every character a little richer and just a little bit more irritating then I was beginning to find the prose a bit smug. Jenny Penny finds herself in a horrific predicament and as the only character to come from a working class background in the book once again I felt myself being drawn into the area of stereotypes.
My copy of the book has a fairly good selection of notes at the end from the author and while the section dealing with the inspiration for Winman's book was interesting, her section on Life as a Writer was, I felt, rather patronising - this is her first book after all.
All told "When God Was a Rabbit2 is a book of two halves with the first half being enjoyable and heartbreaking at the same time but with a darker second half which doesn't work half as well - even allowing for the loss of innocence and the cynicism that inevitably creeps into you as you grow older. On that basis I'd say this book is worthy of three stars - but don't believe the hype about this book being akin to One Day - it actually doesn't come close.
Summary: A book which tackles innocence - and the end of innocence - with mixed results