When God Was a Rabbit is the debut novel by Sarah Winman, published in 2011. It’s about the relationship between a brother and sister, Elly and Joe, told in two parts, the first beginning in 1968 and the second beginning in 2005. It’s about their lives, and their very close and protective relationships both with each other and with their shared friends.
I am aware that the title sounds rather silly. (I am also unable to read it without hearing it sung to the tune of Richie Sambora’s If God Was a Woman). But actually it makes quite a lot of sense in context. When they are still very young, Joe gives his sister Elly a rabbit so that she will have a ‘real friend’, and Elly calls the rabbit God. Occasionally God speaks to her and no one else, and she believes he helps her family and friends when they are in the middle of a predicament. When God Was a Rabbit is Elly’s way of referring to her childhood.
There are a lot of strange and slightly fantastical characters, like Jenny Penny who (aside from having a gory trick of producing a coin from inside her arm!) has a strange ability to sense things that no one else can, and Arthur, the geriatric, eccentric playboy who knows exactly when and how he will die. Then there’s aunt Nancy, the fabulous and glamorous film star who seems a younger version of flair-and-feather-boas Ginger (although more of a lesbian). All the characters are likeable and their relationships are all rather sweet and rather touching.
It’s also incredibly moving. Sarah Winman has taken a rather brave (and extremely controversial) step of writing about the impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. I personally found it quite hard to read because it still seems a bit too recent and fresh. Like most people reading this, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about it. I was in year 7 at school, 11 years old, and I walked through the front door to find my parents sat in front of the television, where they stayed for the rest of the night. I couldn’t keep watching it because I found it too frightening and too enormous. I found this part of the book incredibly hard to read, because 9/11 is so vivid, and reading about the scale of it and the incomprehensible loss of loved ones was far too emotional, and I had a bit of a wobble in the staff room over my southern fried chicken wrap. (I have since learned to try and be more selective when choosing books to read at work). I know there have been a lot of mixed reviews for When God Was a Rabbit, and I think a lot of them are based around this particular plot point. I thought it was handled quite tastefully, although it still came as quite a shock when I realised exactly what Sarah Winman was building up to, and I must admit I was dreading reaching the event. Without giving too much away, I think it was the outcome she chose for her characters and the book itself that garnered the most controversy, as she almost chickened out at the last moment and smoothed out everything with an extra dash of sweetness and light. This obviously had a rather negative effect on the believability factor, but I think that was probably a conscious decision, and a good one. What Sarah Winman has done is to make enough of the book resonate as real life to allow the reader to empathise and feel a sense of inclusion, but separated it enough (with the help of mystical characters like Jenny Penny) so that particular events aren’t too jarring.
I quite enjoyed reading this book, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from it but I was happy enough to drift along with it. I will accept that it isn’t for everyone though – at times it’s a bit too chintzy, at others too near to the mark. It’s worth giving it a go though, as long as you accept beforehand that you might not like it, and aren’t too bothered by the possibility.