Wednesday, 21 August 2013

When God Was A Rabbit (Sarah Winman)

 --The blurb--
"1968. The year Paris takes to the streets. The year Martin Luther King loses his life for a dream. The year Eleanor Maud Portman is born. Young Elly's world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe. Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning when a single, earth-shattering event threatens to destroy their bond forever. Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms."

--The review--
In the wake of 9/11, it was perhaps inevitable that novels centered around this event would follow, with Don DeLillo's Falling Man, Ian McEwan's Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Sarah Winman's When God Was A Rabbit does feature 9/11, but it is just one of a sequence of many events and a backdrop to relationships, which proves a refreshing approach.

Less refreshing is the initial framing of protagonist Elly as a precocious child narrator. Literature is already overburdened with such main characters, and this is beginning to lose its shine. Thankfully, though, as Elly grows up, Winman seems to forget or quietly lay aside this notion, or at least Elly's precocity becomes less obvious. This makes for a more realistic novel, as we're able to focus more on the emotions she feels and the traits she has as a 'normal' human being, rather than on her as a hyper-developed wunderkind. 

This proves the only really weak point of this otherwise compelling novel. Even though Winman lets go of the pet rabbit (who really is called God) physically halfway through the novel, the motif still remains throughout. Despite the fact that When God Was A Rabbit is billed as being about relationships (and specifically the relationship between Elly and her brother Joe), it fits the bill more as a haunting yet uplifting paean to loss, whether it's the loss of friendship or the loss of others, the loss of chances or the loss of childhood - with the latter arguably being symbolised by God the rabbit. In spite of his name, we are not encouraged to look at this innocuous yet magical pet as being a religious representative, although there is scope to assert that it serves as a vessel for a spiritual presence. Even though religion is discussed in the novel, and sometimes even in a quite cavalier and humorous way (with Elly as a child asserting that Jesus was a mistake by virtue of being the result of an unplanned pregnancy), the reader doesn't feel bombarded by moral messages at the expense of events.

Winman keeps up the pace of the novel effectively, with characters' influence still being felt when they have left the stage and are waiting in the wings. Equally powerful is the fact that none of the characters are portrayed as being perfect, with their flaws being brought into sharp focus without the novel taking on the grim tone of a misery lit memoir - even though away from the 1970s some of the adults in the novel would surely be investigated for abuse. This, too, helps the novel to be firmly situated in each of its idiosyncratic time periods, which Winman moves between with ease, even when she comes very close to the present day. September 11th and other world events such as IRA bombings do facilitate certain aspects of the plot, but ultimately do not overshadow the characters and their relationships, which helps the events themselves to avoid seeming hackneyed. 

A gritty road is taken to a happy ending in When God Was A Rabbit, leaving Winman's success as a novelist written in the stars, along with the memories of all those who have been loved and lost. 

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