Author: Sarah Winman, 2011.
Genre: Period Fiction. Coming of Age. Family Saga. GLBT. Slight Magical Realism.
Other Details: Paperback. 341 pages.
“I divide my life into two parts. Not really a Before and After, more as if they are bookends, holding together flaccid years of empty musings, years of late adolescent or the twentysomething whose coat of adulthood simply does not fit.” - Elly, When God was a Rabbit.
The novel opens in 1968, the year Paris takes to the streets and Martin Luther King loses his life. It is also the year that the novel's protagonist and narrator, Eleanor (Elly) Maud Portman, is born. It is a novel of two halves; the first covers Elly's childhood and her close relationship with her older brother Joe and her school friend, Jenny Penny. Jenny's family background is troubled compared to Elly's, whose parents are quite liberal. Events lead to the Portman family moving from Essex to Cornwall. There they buy a large house and run it as a bed and breakfast. Two of their eccentric guests become part of their extended family; Arthur Henry, a rather camp pensioner, and Ginger, his best friend, who is a Shirley Bassey impersonator. The second half of the novel opens in 1995 with Elly living in London and Joe in New York and continues on through the events of the autumn of 2011.
This is a novel about the bonds of family and friendship. The novel's title comes from Joe's Christmas gift to Elly of a large rabbit that Joe suggests she name God. When Elly shares details of her new rabbit with her class it creates problems with her teacher, who tells her that the name is blasphemous. Yet the incident brings Elly and Jenny, a new girl at school, together and they become best friends. Some aspects of Elly's relationship with God the Rabbit and Jenny Penny contain elements of magical realism. However, I didn't feel Winman committed to this; perhaps preferring to keep her narrative focused on the impact of key events upon Elly and others in her life. In her Author's Note she does say that she wanted the early part of the story to suggest the magic and make believe found in childhood to contrast with the darker elements of of the adult section. I still wished she had developed this aspect more fully.
This was Winman's début novel and gained a lot of buzz and critical praise in the UK on publication including winning New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards. Winman does say that she received criticism for writing about 9/11 "from further afield". I wasn't sure whether this meant to suggest she was targeted by US critics, who may have felt a British writer should not address the issue even though there were British citizens who died that day.
Overall, I enjoyed this very much appreciating its quirky characters, especially Nancy, Elly's flamboyant aunt. However, I found Elly somewhat difficult to relate to. She didn't seem to be aware of how disconnected she was from others. As an adult she had formed no close relationships with anyone outside her extended family circle and seemed incapable of making new connections. Somehow still suspended in that childhood. Of course, given that the novel ends in 2001 with Elly in her early thirties that she has plenty of time in front of her. Plus, there was a reason for her aversion to people, something that as a narrator she skirts around even though it is there between the lines. So she's not quite an unreliable narrator but one struggling with her flaws.
The novel was very well received by all members of our library reading group; inspiring a great deal of discussion about its themes. I feel it is a novel I'd want to revisit again in a year or so.