When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

I normally do long intro’s into my book thoughts, but I am trying some new things with my blogging and so decided I wouldn’t meander introducing ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman and would just cut to the chase and say please give this book a whirl, its really rather good, and read on to find out why you should, there’s lots of reasons so be warned you might find yourself instantly buying the book by the end, which is a good thing…

‘When God Was A Rabbit’ has been described as a love story between a brother and sister. Now if you are like me you might be worried that this is headed into incest territory, but fear not, it is nothing of the kind. I would describe this book as a coming of age meets family saga in which we follow the lives of Eleanor Maud (aka Elly) and her big brother Jo as they grow up with secrets they share, and discover the highs and lows of life both together and separately and the special bond they have between them. I would also says it’s a book of friendship and the people who come into our lives no matter for how long or short a time and make an impression. This might sound like a vague summing up of the book but one of the joys I found, and I did find this a really good read, whilst turning the pages was discovering who or what was around every corner.

It’s also about time, and as we follow the family we too see the world events unfold around them from the late 1960’s until more recent years and covers things from family secrets, loves and loses and such subjects as John Lennon and Diana’s death to 9/11. So it’s really about two people through time. It sounds so simple yet it is a book that has been meticulously crafted, not so that we see the authors hard work, but in the sense that the people we follow seem to step off the page. In fact I kept thinking of David Nicholls ‘One Day’ and the nostalgic feeling and so real you feel like you’re their best mate lead characters. Only these are of course siblings, not on-off lovers.

Sarah Winman is without question a very exciting new writer that I think we all need to keep our eyes on. Her prose is rhythmic and I found the first hundred pages simply unputdownable (cliche alert, sorry) as we meet Elly and her family and the cacophony of characters in her life. Seriously, the characters are marvellous. I did wonder if Winman, being from an acting background, has simply created a list of the sort of characters she has wanted to play. Winman’s swift way of summing them up in a is genius. No matter how little time a character is called into this world they are fully fleshed out be it in a single sentence or paragraph. There was one scene between Aunt Nancy and one of her movie obsessed girlfriends, who has renamed herself Katherine Hepburn and is hardly in the book at all, which had me in hysterics and showed the full genius of Winman’s ability to characterize in a minimal way.

“’Sorry I’m late!’ shouted Nancy one day, as she rushed into a café to meet her.
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ said K.H.
‘That’s alright then,’ said Nancy sitting down.
Then looking round, with a raised voice, K.H. said, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’
Nancy noticed the people in the café staring at them.
‘Fancy a sandwich?’ she said quietly.
‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes then,’ said Nancy picking up a menu.”

In fact the level of humour in ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ was something I wasn’t expecting and is a tool Winman uses well particularly if things are getting quite dark, which the book does do quite a lot. In fact it was a rabbit named ‘god’ who stole the show  in terms of bittersweet humour in the first half of the book as Elly uses his ability to ‘talk’, which only she can hear, to deal with horrid moments, so when she has heard some bad news she will go and pet god who will then say something like ‘ouch you little, s**t’ (this has me laughing as I type) and again shows how Winman effortlessly gets into the head of or protagonist Elly, especially in her formative years and in times where she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself or how to copewith life’s twists and in many ways escapes.

I did find it interesting that the opening line is ‘I divide my life into two parts’ because to me this is a book of two halves and is also where it becomes telling that this is a debut novel. Debut novels tend to have a real thrust and drive to them, as this book does (though its technically Winman’s second, the first didn’t get published) for the first half which bowled me over. They can also want to say a lot, sometimes too much. Whilst Winman doesn’t do this I did find that when a friend of Elly and Joe’s was kidnapped in Dubai (in the middle of the book) and plastered all over the news, I started wondering just how much could happen to one family even in the most random or distant of ways. This happened again when John Lennon gets shot… on Elly’s birthday, and this occasionally seemed a touch too much. Then again sometimes that is life isn’t it? It by no means ruined the book at all, it just took a tiny bit of the magic off. I should comment Winman on the ending too as it was a risk, and one the reader sees coming, possibly as in my case with some trepidation, but which I thought actually paid off when in some cases it could have gone the other way. I will say no more on that though.

My only other slight criticism would be that ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ pushes its point home too hard on occasion especially in its gay sensibility. I think the fact that every other character in the book happened to be gay was brilliant and I could see what Sarah Winman was doing, but that isn’t the way it is in real life is it? It’s meant to be one in ten people, not one in every two. I also wasn’t sure how I felt, in terms of stereotyping, about some characters for example Arthur, who comes into the book about half ay through, is a wonderful character lovely older gay man on the whole but did then fall into a cliché by screaming or saying to our narrator ‘popularity, my dear, is as overrated as a large member’. Whilst yes it did make me laugh, that fact it’s said to a girl of twelve seemed a bit wrong, it reflects that rather archaic view that old gay men can be rather pervy and inappropriate and one we should be stamping out. Maybe I am being too critical there?

Those criticisms might seem a little harsh, or make me sound a little like the Grinch of books trying to see flaws; I just want to give it a full rounded review and in doing so had to point out some of it’s pitfalls too. You see initially after reading it I was a little conflicted about it, however with time for the dust to settle I realised I really, really liked it. There’s a warmth in this novel which is quite unlike any other I have read and it lingers. So as I was saying all in all I really, really, really enjoyed ‘When God Was A Rabbit’. It’s a book you gulp down for the first half and then watch unfold more delicately in the second. It’s one that deserves to be read, so I hope you will. It’s a book you won’t forget and, if you are like me, will grow and grow on you after it finishes. 9/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I am actually rather surprised this didn’t make ‘The Orange Longlist’ this year but it was one of the Waterstones 11 and has been picked up by Richard and Judy latest book club (and might just have been submitted for another award – I think I can share that with you, oops maybe not) so I am sure it will be getting much more attention and it deserves it. It is definitely one to read if you loved ‘One Day’ by David Mitchell, as I mentioned, and also if you like the bittersweet. Which debut novel have you read recently which has rather bowled you over? Has anyone else read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and what did you think?

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29 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Headline Review, Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman

29 responses to “When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

  1. Great review Simon, I love that you pointed out the few flaws as well. Definitely sounds like one worth reading.

    • Thank you Amy. I am hoping that readers of the blog will have noticed that my reviews, whilst having also got a bit longer, have a new way of saying both the pro’s and the con’s and then the overall, er, all-ness of the books I have been reading lol.

  2. I loved this book too and I agree that it should have made the Orange longlist. I agree that there was far too much happening to one family and that made it unrealistic, but I don’t think that mattered. It was such an entertaining story that I was willing to forgive the way it was so over the top. I’m pleased that R&J are going to bring it to a wider audience.

    • No you are right Jackie, the beauty of fiction is that it can be completely unbelievable but the author has to hold you in that spell of the unbelievable and occasionally, very rarely I admit but enough to notice, Winman let it slip a bit and I lost some belief. Overall though its an excellent and really enjoyable read that I really recommend, and I too am really pleased Richard and Judy have chosen this one.

  3. Thats funny I brought this yesterday, I’m sure I had heard ood things about so I thouht I’d ive it a whirl!

    • Well I shall have to keep my eyes peeled on how you have found it. The audio book is also wonderful, I was sent both (and a lovely bag) and Winman reads its with real love and zest. Its very, very good.

  4. Dot

    I really enjoyed this one, it’s a shame that it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of publicity.

    • I am hopeful that now its been on the R&J list this will get more attention. I am wondering also if it might get a Booker mention. Some people would think I am mad saying that but you can never be so sure.

  5. I have put a link to your review on my own blog Musings of an aspiring author; 1.piws.co.uk It was relevant to a post and I too had just finished this book finding it a great read. Hope you don’t mind I have put a hyperlink to this page and hope that others will pick up the book and enjoy its simple humour and fantastically well written prose. A book I would recommend to anyone, even the most critical of readers, as well as my friends and definitely my siblings. In my blog I had written about a conversation with my young daughter last week. She had wanted to know how a rabbit having an operation would stop it from having babies. She is rabbit and book mad at only 5 years old. I enjoyed your review and found your comments to be similar to my own appraisal of the book. As above a real shame it hasn’t had the publicity it deserves as its appeal is so wide ranging.

    • Thanks for letting me know Kerry. No problems at all, anything that gets this book attention is well worth it as it should definitely be read by a lot more people. I also completely agree in its wide ranging appeal. One to be read by lots.

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  8. Great review! This is on my wishlist of books to read. As soon as I heard about the book it reminded me of ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls which I loved. Need to buy the book asap.

    • Thanks Miss Moment. There is something in this book that reminded me about One Day but I really hope they dont get labelled together as actually they are very different. They have a certain similarity in the scope of time and that there are some corking characters, I think thats where it ends though.

  9. Belinda

    I loved the book despite the rain of unhappy events. I think the consistency of tragedy is indicative of a new author who has loads of good ideas and can’t bear to spread them over a sequel, or into two entirely different books, but Winman manages to make it acceptable through some strong characterisations.
    Worth reading.

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  11. mel williams

    Haven’t read it yet; some people say over the top; story fades into boringness. (By the way, you don’t need an apostrophe for ‘intros’ in para 1, but you do need one for ‘author’s’ in para 3!)

  12. A great review here, Simon. You managed to cover the negatives about this book, of which there are some in my opinion, without being a meanie!

    I agree with you that there are many good things about this book and I’m looking forward to reading Sarah’s next book. I have to say though the ending didn’t work for me, I’m afraid, but then I’m not really a fan of magic realism at all so that might be why…

    I agree with you that there were perhaps one too many gay characters but it was refereshing to read a book where they were very much present rather than airbrushed out completely!

  13. Tony

    Although I enjoyed this book I’m afraid any comparison to ‘One Day’ is misjudged on grounds that ‘One Day’ is much, much, much superior in every manner. However there are some wonderful characters (Arthur especially) and some very tender moments and overall I would give this a 7/10.

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  19. Catriona

    Received this book as a much appreciated Christmas present. So far I have read the first ten pages, and even though I am very fussy on books, this one was pleasing not as expected. I thought this to be a girlie story, with lots of boring normal life stories, but this broke the boundaries of a typical girl book even for me. Not a book I would have picked up and chosen for myself, but I am glad I was given it.

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  22. Trace

    Overall, and despite any flaws, I loved this novel. Her writing is both enchanting and emotionally charged, and I really enjoyed the little rabbit aspect too. I must, however, ask what the ending means exactly? Maybe I’m misunderstanding…could somebody clarify?

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