Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Please do tell me about when God was a rabbit

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…)

The first reason for my bafflement was that I felt marooned in time and space. I was initially introduced to this novel by the reading from it Winman gave at the event I intended, and on the basis of that sample, I was convinced that the entire book was set in America. This was an impression I couldn’t rid myself of throughout the first section, despite pools coupons, currency, and other background details being obvious clues. The sense of place is completely off somehow, although this makes no sense considering the fact that Winman is essentially writing about her own childhood in Essex and Cornwall during the 1960s and 1970s, as she reveals in the author’s note at the back. As none of the details are incorrect, I can only point vaguely to the ‘feel’ of the narrative, and possibly this is down to Ellie’s voice itself. I don’t think that Ellie sounds particularly Americanised; simply as if she belongs nowhere at all, and this impression was confirmed when I couldn’t keep track of whether she was in New York or London in the second half of the novel. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Winman to emphasise Ellie’s isolation, but if so, it made the locations in the novel completely forgettable, which I don’t think was her intention.

The second, and more important reason, was that the book didn’t ever seem to start – or perhaps I mean that it seemed to want to end before it began. As childhood experience was clearly going to be a large part of the theme of the story, I was confused when we seemed to be racing through Ellie’s memories of Joe, Jenny, and god (whom I’m going to mention as often as possible, as it’s so amusing to type!) Length doesn’t necessarily mean depth, and a few vivid incidents would have been sufficient, but instead everything seemed sketched out, rather than filled in. The novel, in one sense, is packed with drama: childhood abuse, cancer, a friend being kidnapped in Dubai, a baby killed in a freak accident, Ellie’s dad’s guilt over defending a case in court where he later found his abusive client was guilty… and that’s only in the first 100 pages or so.

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.

Perhaps what this all boils down to is a problem with the prose. Winman occasionally manages a beautiful description or metaphor, but on the whole it was often overwritten and a little affected. Even just in the extract I heard first, a character opens their eyes ‘to the dull December morn’, and Ellie steps on some dog mess, which, she tells us, ‘coated the underside of my shoe like grease and its sour smell lounged around in my nostrils.’ More broadly, the sentences constantly seem to be understating everything, closing the story before it’s even been written; by the time I reached the end of the novel, I felt as if everything had been tied up at least a dozen times before. Taken on their own, each of these sequences (her eccentric neighbour Arthur’s tangles with death; her father’s belief that he is doomed being flummoxed by a win on the pools; the drawn-out love story between her brother and his boyfriend, to take just a few examples) could have contributed to a fantastic ending. But to paraphrase junior school storywriting, you have to have a beginning and a middle before you can have an end, and by the final page, I found myself wondering when God actually had been a rabbit; it certainly didn’t seem to have happened for long.

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