“I never felt complete without him. In truth, I never would.”
This has to be my most belated review to date, it was way, way back in November when I first began reading When God Was a Rabbit and a lot has changed since then. As I mentioned in my last post, since November I have moved towns, got a new home and a new job. When God Was a Rabbit has been a strange book to read through these changes. Having just moved away from the town where I grew up and left my parent’s house, the home I’ve lived in since I was just five years old, it has been odd to read a story which poignantly pays tribute to those strange bonds that tie a family together.
The blurb on the back of my copy of the book begins “this is a story about a brother and a sister”, I think they could have gone even further, to me, When God Was a Rabbit is very much a love story. Not in the traditional sense, I grant you. Sarah Winman’s tale is about the complex layers of shared experiences, shared secrets, shared truths and shared pain that create the unique love of a family, and more specifically of siblings. Joe and Elly, the brother and sister of Winman’s story, are an example of the ties that can form between two people who share their formative years.
I think Winman depicts the relationship between brother and sister well, she certainly seems to capture something of that shared consciousness formed by siblings throughout their childhood. Although Elly’s brother is older than she is, the relationship they share as children did, in some ways, remind me of the relationship I shared with my younger brother. I’ve often tried to imagine what it’d be like growing up as an only child and have only ever concluded that it’d be pretty lonely, as children my brother and I were certainly never best friends, but we definitely had our own quirky version of friendship. We spent hours fighting like cats and dogs, but also spent hours playing together and often formed a strange alliance against the world (namely, our parents and anything they did that we didn’t like). One thing I think Winman does well in drawing the relationship between Joe and Elly is the way she portrays their ability to sustain quiet, unspoken, companionship. Even when my brother and I were fighting, there was a certain familiarity and comfort to be taken from arguing with someone you knew so well. You instinctively knew what buttons to press, how to hit them where it hurt, and, I think, it’s a sad reality of life that we only possess that kind of knowledge about the people we love most. The bond between siblings is, I think, one that is underrepresented in literature, especially the bond between a brother and a sister. I can think of several examples of novels that show the closeness of sisters, but there seem to me to be very few that illustrate the friendship of siblings of different genders.
But, enough about siblings, When God Was a Rabbit has more to offer than that. Like many of the other books I’ve reviewed Winman’s novel is a coming-of-age story. It follows the life of Elly, who acts as narrator throughout the book. Elly is a comfortable presence to be in, despite her complex childhood and the challenges she faces throughout her life, Elly remains a solid constant for both Winman’s readers and for her family. In the book’s later stages when Elly becomes an adult, she seems to me to act as the presence that reminds the other characters why they are tied to one another. I don’t want to say too much about the plot and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but there comes a time in the story when Elly’s family face the ultimate challenge – when their very existence as a unit is threatened – it is this section of the book that I found the most moving. Elly acts as our eyes and ears as her family’s world is turned upside down. The events which occur make you question how you, and your own family, would cope if disaster struck. Winman also makes us question the rather shaky foundations that our identities and lives are built upon. Her story makes you stop and think about the jenga blocks of your existence and how you would stay upright if that tower of bricks, which you began building in childhood, suddenly came tumbling down.
The book also pays tribute to the roles that friends play in our lives. Through an array of characters Winman deftly shows the effect friends and friendships can have upon our lives, whether positive or otherwise. Some friends carry more weight than others, where certain characters are concerned, from the moment they appear on the page it becomes clear that they will have a lasting effect on the story and its characters.
I would recommend When God Was a Rabbit. It’s a heartfelt tale about growing up in modern Britain and about the intricate structure of family. It celebrates the struggles of ordinary people and their daily lives. When God Was a Rabbit is a brave story that does not shy away from describing pain, problems and disappointments; but the story’s overarching theme is love. Complicated, everyday love and how it changes…but above all, how it endures.
I move on to North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.