Sunday, May 8, 2011

When God Was a Rabbit

I always enjoy Heather's Picks, the CEO of Chapters and Indigo's personal favourites. So this week while browsing for a new book, I went to the table that holds her most recent picks and noticed one that I had not seen before. This weeks fabulously quirky novel, When God Was a Rabbit, written by Sarah Winman was a genuinely captivating read. It was at times laugh-out-loud funny, at others gut-wrenchingly sad, this book is peppered with unique and complex characters who are so original, well-observed and believable that you'll be completely absorbed into their world. It is a story of siblings, friendship, secrets and love, told with sadness and humour. It perfectly captures the hazy, magical nature of youth and all its mysteries, against a backdrop of real-life events.

On the brink of adolescence, Elly observes the world with both a childish sense of wonder and the unflinching, no-nonsense perspective of a young person. Her world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe.

Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning and a single, earth-shattering event that threatens to destroy their bond for ever.

Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms.

Just a little over half way through this book, we are brought to the morning of 9/11. This may sound bad, but I started to loose interest. I couldn't see how this storyline could be different from the countless others on this topic. However, being a person who cannot not finish a book, I continued turning the pages, and I am so glad that I did. As the events of 9/11 came into focus, Winman handled it in a refreshing and unpredictable way. The plot continued to be compelling throughout; rendered with an appealing frankness, precision and emotional acuity.

I think what I liked most about this novel is that it was a rollicking family story - in which we get to know a fairly large cast of eccentric and unconventional characters and follow them through some tricky decades. It is recognizably true and heart-breaking in equal measure. Winman's narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child's unsentimental clarity which maintains its energy; and even at her most precocious, Elly never wears out her welcome.

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