Book review: When God Was a Rabbit, Sarah Winman

When God Was a Rabbit book coverAnother from the TBR mountain! I got When God was a Rabbit from Read It Swap It, a book swap site I regularly use, around July last year. Not sure now what I swapped it for, or what particularly caught my eye about this book – had I been browsing in a bookshop or library I’m sure it would have been the extremely pretty cover that drew me in!

When God was a Rabbit follows the story of Elly (written from her first-person perspective), and her older brother Joe to whom she is devoted, through childhood and into adulthood. The first half of the book deals with their childhood in the 1970s, first in Essex and then in rural Cornwall. It’s all pretty idyllic on the surface – Elly runs around with her brother, her wild best friend Jenny Penny, and her pet rabbit who she names God (hence the title) – but there are darker undertones, hints of child abuse and family secrets that the narration only skates over. The second half of the book takes up the story 15 years later, and is mainly concerned with Elly, her brother and Jenny Penny making sense of the various childhood dramas that shaped them, and coming to terms with loss in various forms.

I really didn’t think I’d get into this book at first. For the first few chapters, I found the characters a bit twee, the plot contrived, and the odd way that the narrator’s references to Bad Grown-Up Things were just dropped in without elaboration jarred. But as a I got further into it, it really started to grab me. There was still a small voice in the back of my head telling me that I should be finding fault with this book, but I just couldn’t do it: it’s too lovely. The writing is excellent, and although I still think the characters were all a bit too twee to be a real family, they were also all so lovely that I stopped minding.

As an exploration of family bonds and love, this book is near-perfect. It had me near tears in several places, particularly towards the end. The events of the last few chapters of the book (trying really hard not to give spoilers here…) have been criticised as being unrealistic, but as the author acknowledges in her note at the end, they were meant to be. Although they aren’t necessarily true to life, they are true to the spirit of the book, which I think is what matters in fiction. Besides, to have ended the book any other way would have just broken my heart.

Just lovely.This is Sarah Winman’s first novel, and I’ll certainly read more of her work.

Verdict: 3.5/5

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