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When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

May 29, 2011


Spanning four decades, from 1968 onwards, this is the story of a fabulous but flawed family and the slew of ordinary and extraordinary incidents that shape their everyday lives. It is a story about childhood and growing up, loss of innocence, eccentricity, familial ties and friendships, love and life. Stripped down to its bare bones, it’s about the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister.


When God Was a Rabbit is Sarah Winman’s debut novel, and it has received plenty of attention this year with it being included in the ‘Waterstone’s 11’; a selection of the top literary debut novels published this year. Having now read it, it is very easy to see why it has received this honour – and I’m so glad it did, because I fear that without it, it may have become a hidden gem that no one really got a chance to hear about.

I didn’t know much about this novel when I picked it up. I was once again sucked in by the gorgeous cover, but at least this time it did lead me to a very good story.

This is a novel about childhood innocence and how quickly the real world can sneak up on you and take it all away. It’s about childhood memories and how important they are, even throughout your adult life. It’s about friendship and family, and the importance of being there for one another when tragedy strikes. But more than anything else it is about the bond between a brother and sister.

Elly is a unique child. She is young, yet full to the brim with intelligence and a peculiar curiosity to know the answers to life’s big questions. She has a rabbit named God who can talk to her and no one else. She is an outcast amongst those her own age, and instead seeks friendship with those much older than her, those who can teach her new things about life and the world in which they live.

The only person who truly knows Elly, and who really understands her is her brother, Joe. Their bond is unbreakable, and continues to get stronger and stronger throughout the novel. As Joe struggles with the question of his sexuality, and Elly struggles with some rather tragic memories of her early childhood, the two confide only in each other and through doing so become each other’s lifeline.

The other person who makes a difference in Elly’s life is without a doubt her best childhood friend Jenny Penny, a rather eccentric character with a drunken mother and very few friends. Jenny and Elly know they are outsiders amongst those their own age, but through this they have come together and formed a special friendship that is renewed once again in adulthood.

The book is split into two parts; the first covers Elly’s childhood and her innocence, then slowly as little things start to unfold in the lives of those in her family, and everything is not quite as simple as it seems, we are taken in to the second half of the novel where everything becomes a little more serious.

As Elly’s parents make a life-changing decision and decide to move toCornwalland open up a B&B, Elly must leave her life inEssexforever. The B&B becomes a haven for more eccentric characters such as an elderly homosexual, Arthur, who Elly clings to befriends – forming a friendship that will last for many years to come. Each of these wonderful small characters play a big role throughout the novel as each one has a story of their own. We also see Elly’s friendship with Jenny Penny finally grow again through a series of letters when times are hard for Jenny, the innocence of childhood swept away by life.

Throughout the novel, any events that happen in Elly’s life are set against the backdrop of real events that we will all recognise in our own lives; the death of John Lennon, the death of Princess Diana and of course the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers and more. We see Elly’s reaction to these events and it feels almost like we are reliving them through her, particularly the section on 9/11, which comes to affect Elly’s life in a terrible way. I found these parts extremely tragic and emotional, almost bringing me to tears.

What I love most about this book is Sarah’s writing technique – the fact-paced quirky style that really brings the novel to life. Her characters all have their own story and each one brings something new to the novel. We witness the way each of these characters influence Elly’s life and help her become the woman she is today. We don’t ever really see much happen to Elly herself – we barely see her with a lover, or many friends outside of her family. She is the quiet observer, the silent witness to those around her, sharing with us their tragedies and successes in life.

Some people may criticise this book for trying to pack to many ‘issues’ and ‘tragedies’ into this book, but I couldn’t care less. It was so beautifully written and had such a unique voice to it that I loved it more than I ever thought I would. Sarah Winman has made me laugh out loud and brought tears to my eyes. She has made me so excited about this story that I’m dying to tell everyone they must read it now. But above all, she has made me miss these characters like they are my own flesh and blood. Being an only child myself, I can only imagine how wonderful it must feel to have a sibling like Joe or Elly, someone who is constantly there throughout your life, who knows you more than you know yourself sometimes.

I can’t wait to see what Sarah Winman will come up with next…

When God Was a Rabbit is out now in paperback, published by Headline.

To see other books on the Waterstone’s 11 list click here.



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