“When God Was a Rabbit” begins in England in 1968. Elly and her brother Joe are very close, and share a dark secret. To compensate for Elly’s lack of friends, Joe gives her a rabbit named… you guessed it.
This charming book by Sarah Winman is both funny and touching, while managing to bypass the morass of maudlin predictability. Her narrative structure is slightly reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, who writes fantastic family dramas with dark secrets as well. One of the recurring themes of “When God Was a Rabbit” is religion—in a hilarious early scene, Elly, who is playing the innkeeper in a school nativity, tells an inquiring Mary and Joseph, “Yes, I have a room, with a lovely view at an excellent rate. Come this way, please.”
Elly is punished for her various sacrileges at school, but her home life is mostly filled with fun, love and acceptance. Her parents win the lottery and buy a bed and breakfast, her aunt is a glamorous movie star, and two older characters, like adoptive grandparents, enter her life. But while luck seems to have shone on the family, nearly every character seems to have a shameful or terrible history they’d like to dissolve.
In the second half of the book, Winman fast-forwards to 1995, where Elly, despite the promise of youth, does not seem to have progressed in her life. It is as if she were stifled, not able to mature beyond a certain point. Her social circle has not grown outside her small family and their adopted friends. Her brother lives in New York City and, well, the rabbit’s long gone.
Elly considers her brother’s particular sadness:
The fire spat out minuscule embers onto the wide hearth, where I watched them fade like dying stars. My brother had episodes like this, ones that eclipsed the brightness that he was, that he could be. My mother blamed it on rugby, on the frequent knocks to his head, the concussion. I blamed it on the secret I made him carry. My father simply thought it must be quite lonely at times, being gay. Maybe it was a bit of everything, I thought.
There’s a tiny, fairytale-like aspect to “When God Was a Rabbit,” in which that rabbit is not unlike God, where miracles occur and old wounds do heal with time. Winman’s characters are the kind a reader falls in love with and misses when the book is finished. (Kelly Roark)
“When God Was a Rabbit”
By Sarah Winman
Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $25