I was excited when Lovely Mum bought me When God Was a Rabbit as it has probably the most beautiful cover I’ve seen since The Children’s Book (although it still doesn’t take A.S. Byatt’s crown). I loved the title and the blurb, which promised to be “about a brother and a sister….about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between. More than anything, it’s a book about love in all its forms.” All-encompassing huh? But did it live up to my expectations?
On the one hand, I loved Sarah Winman’s use of language, the book’s magical, mysterious feel, the fierce childlike love between Elly and her brother Joe, and the wonderful array of odd characters: from wild old Arthur with his coconut death prophecy to wild-haired Jenny Penny with her chaotic, funeral-freeloading mother. I loved the way the book seemed to float on a sea of dreams, punctuated by the shocks of real world global events like 9/11, which suddenly pinpointed the narrative in a particular present. Joe’s world and, even more sharply, Elly’s world, is one of self-absorption (like most lives perhaps) except in those times when the real world smashes through its cosy defences in a way that can be shocking.
I also loved the way that the book takes you through the life of a family over a course of years (I always like a good saga – it’s nosiness I suppose, I want to know how everything ends) and there were moments in the book that were genuinely moving.
On the other hand I must confess that, when I came to write this review, I struggled a bit. As agreeable as the characters were, there was a faraway feel to them. As a reader I always felt like I was looking down on their lives from the outside. There was a kind of emptiness in the character of Elly and, to a large extent, the others as well – I didn’t feel I knew them by the end of the book as much as I felt that I’d spied on their lives. That’s not a terrible thing, of course, but it did make the narrative less compelling.
I’ve heard other people complain that Winman tries to cover too much in the book and that this makes the story unwieldy and disjointed but I personally didn’t feel that way. I felt that the backdrop of global events anchored in reality a book that might otherwise have felt too whimsical. As it was, I felt it was just the right amount of whimsy (although I was disappointed that God the rabbit didn’t have a more prominent part to play in the story – I personally think that was a wasted opportunity).
It was, in many ways, a lovely book – a treasure, poignant and full of beauty. But it just misses being the sort of book I’d rave about because of that measure of distance that was always there between the characters and the reader. Rather than feeling like I was saying goodbye to a set of old friends at the end of the book, I felt more like I was waking up from a fragmented but rather beautiful dream.