February 7, 2023

When God was a Rabbit (2011) – Review & Discussion

I found this to be a beautiful and absorbing book, and I cannot recommend it enough. While the blurb on the back cover does it justice, it is so much more than “a book about a brother and a sister…a book about secrets and starting over, friendship and family, triumph and tragedy, and everything in between…a book about love in all its forms.” I also found it to be a complex exploration of children’s relationships with their world, a detailed study of memory and identity, and a beautiful and poetical piece that is simultaneously honest and naive, melancholy and hopeful, subjective and realistic.

This is not a plot-driven novel. The focus is more interior; on relationships, thought, the experience of being a child and then reinterpreting those experiences as an adult. It’s not about events, but rather the narrator’s relationship to and with events. There are some elements not explained and not neatly tied-up and others that take a bit of work from the reader to read between the lines of the child-narrator’s subjective recollection. Sarah Winman does not spell things out in obvious one-liners: she is far more subtle, and, therefore, her prose is far richer and the read more rewarding.


I am not going to recount the novel as that would be boring and because I would not do the novel justice. The stunning beauty is in the telling; the phrasing and language Winman uses to explore what is a fairly standard plot, that of a sister, Elly, and her brother, Joe, their parents, friends, family and pet rabbit called ‘god’, their experiences of growing up, and the various tragedies encountered along the way. It is the poetical-prose that gives this narrative such nostalgic eloquence, for it is the personal story behind everyone, in all its specialness and vibrancy, that turns the mundane and normal into the spectacular.


When writing as the child-Elly in the first part of the novel, Winman uses analogies, metaphors, similies and descriptions that I have never heard of before: they are not the standard methods of painting a picture for the reader, yet they are instantly recognisable. Combined with a slight peculiarity in sentence structure, this makes the narrative read more as oral history, rather than written (that is, considered and edited) prose, for these are the recollections of a child, a child who is trying to make sense of her world and is still learning the rules of grammar syntax, much the same way as she is still learning the normalities of behaviour. There are also many unsolved mysteries, for the child-Elly is taken in by magic and witnesses only snippets of other peoples’ lives, without context. By leaving these encounters open and without tidy, omniscient resolution, Winman creates a reflection of true memory. The lack of explanation of the peculiar and its consequential absorption into normality is balanced by Elly’s intense interest in the ordinary. She elevates everyday mundane occurrences into pivotal moments of her childhood, and the inclusion of these tiny, boring, everyday details, makes the prose more vibrant, the moment more real, and the character more solid.


In part one of the novel, Winman explores children’s perception on the world and relationships with people through Elly’s recollections of her childhood, challenging the associations of childhood with naivety. She recounts the details noticed by children, and shows that they remember wrongs done to and in front of them. Children can and do judge situations and people, they recognise prejudice and inconsistencies in adults, and are not to be underestimated. Winman contrasts child-Elly’s awareness and memory with her lack of understanding for the serious meaning behind these occurrences. It is not that children are ignorant and easily-fooled, for they recognise wrong, it’s more that they do not realise the full significance or potential impact of events, and so they do not challenge them: things happen and are remembered, and then, in adulthood, the wrongs witnessed and experienced in childhood are given context. Winman goes on to explore these impacts of childhood on adulthood in her second part. This novel covers child abuse, death, illness and suicide, religion vs atheism, lesbianism and the struggle with sexuality, adultery, broken homes, adult frailty and parental failures, and physical and mental illness, all within the first fifty pages, with self harm, divorce, pornography and rape to come. Yet it doesn’t read as a brutal list of trauma and horror, such is the observation of a child: they are instances almost casually mentioned in passing. As such, there are several times in this first part where the reader knows more than the narrator: Elly knows it happened, but does not know what ‘it’ really is. This allows Winman to contrast Elly with her older brother Joe, who takes on the full burden of knowledge alone, and to explore the effects of adult awareness of childhood-passivity in the second part when Elly is an adult.


The decision to narrate through a child allows Winman to explore the poignancy of childhood suffering, in that the children have no power, but feel and suffer the full effect of abuse and neglect, which leads into a subtle exploration of parenting. For me, the character of Aunt Nancy is a natural parent to Elly and Joe, as their actual parents focus on being husband and wife and building their own dream. While these ‘real’ parents rely on a book, Nancy is open and honest, graphic and blunt, and doesn’t rely on euphemisms to explain difficult issues. Continuing this theme, the bond of siblings trumps the bond of child and parent. It is Joe that Elly tells her big secret to, and Joe does not pass this information on to their parents. This is not to give the impression of neglect, indeed, these parents are depicted as the most loving, safe and supportive parents by the adult-Elly of part two. However, I read this as a subtle and deliberate hole placed in the narrative by Winman, commenting on the alteration of childhood memories by adulthood, with the tendency to look back on childhood in those ubiquitous rose-tinted spectacles. After all, people do not freeze in time: time overwrites old memories with new ones. However, this can come at the expense of shared-memories, which shakes the bond between two people, for, as the adult-Elly asserts, “memories, no matter how small or inconsequential, are the pages that define us”. Winman connects memory with identity, and her novel explores the childhood experiences that go on to shape adult personality and relationships.


Winman weaves a complex narrative which relives a childhood that is both ordinary and extraordinary, and then explores the resulting adulthood with its own problems and experiences. She creates unique characters and allows her readers to fully immerse themselves in a rich and believable fiction. This novel is more than a simple recounting of events: it is a recollection of thoughts and reactions, a tale of constantly evolving and reconfiguring relationships, and a demonstration of the importance of memories to identity.

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