I’m going to try to be scrupulously fair with my review of this debut novel, partly because I recently went to an event in Cambridge where Sarah Winman was one of the writers discussing her work and she seemed like a lovely person, and partly because it has been reviewed well by others and may just not be my thing. But I have to admit it: I’m baffled and a bit bored, but mostly baffled.
When God Was A Rabbit is narrated by Ellie, who begins her account as a child and ends it as a young woman in her late twenties. The book is divided into two halves; Ellie’s childhood in Essex and Cornwall, and her young-adulthood, divided between London and New York. As ever in this coming-of-age type story, the bonds between Ellie and her brother Joe and best friend Jenny that are formed during their youth become central to the narrative of their adulthood, even though they are scattered much further apart. The rabbit of the title is Ellie’s childhood pet and her confidante (and is actually named ‘god’ with a lowercase g, a puzzling detail as I wouldn’t have thought children who name their rabbit god would be too worried about being blasphemous, but never mind…)
However, none of this seems to be fully considered, and this extends to the characters as well. There are certainly suggestions of depth, and I was intrigued by Ellie, Joe, and to an extent their parents – but again, we never seemed to spend enough time with them, and I felt as if there’d been an earlier section of set-up which I’d missed. The novel is broken up into very short chunks, and there are almost no long consecutive passages of dialogue; Ellie describes everything for us, and we hardly ever get to witness these characters or their interactions ourselves. Jenny, her once-best friend, is a particular disappointment; she flares into life in the first half, is abruptly shuffled off-screen, and hardly gets to appear in person at all in the latter section. In fact my favourite character was probably god (Yes managed it again!) – and, unfortunately, considering the death and destruction elsewhere, his fate was perhaps the most moving.