Friday, May 16, 2014

When God Was a Rabbit

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)

Beginning in 1968, Elly tells the story of her family as she grows up in England. She is especially close to her brother Joe, and admires her Aunt Nancy, who is somewhat of a film star. Also acquired during her childhood are a rabbit she names god (lower case) and a good friend, Jenny Penny. The story follows these important relationships into adulthood in this quirky coming-of-age novel.

I first heard of this book from the podcast The Readers, and it's a title the hosts mention again and again so I'm glad I finally got around to reading it as part of the TBR Pile Challenge. It's the sort of book where the summary doesn't at all convey how appealing it is. Unless you just love British coming-of-age novels (which, I guess I kind of do) it's hard to tell from the description what is so appealing.

Part of what makes this novel unique are its surreal moments. In the prologue Elly meets Jenny Penny, who pulls a coin from her forearm. Not from the sleeve or out of thin air, but wrenching it from her skin, blood and all. Similarly, Elly's rabbit sometimes talks out loud to her. A family friend named Arthur says he knows exactly when and how he will die, and it's the sort of book where you know he could either be proven true, or not, because it's nothing if not unpredictable. The unexpected moments, coincidences, and predictions all combine to make it just a little bit magical.

Elly's childhood is rounded out with her brother's best friend/boyfriend Charlie, and her close friend Jenny Penny, who ends up moving away only to reconnect with Elly later under unexpected circumstances. Elly's family opens a bed and breakfast, apparently because her parents want to expand their circle of friends, and this is where they meet Arthur and an older lady named Ginger who becomes essentially extensions of the family. Her family collects people the way others collect pets, and Elly is certainly influenced by the diversity of people she comes to know.

I had a lot of fun experiencing Elly's childhood and seeing how her experiences carried over into her adult life. The humor is fairly dark in parts, but I think it's ultimately a charming, enjoyable read that strikes just the right balance between being literary and appealing to the general reader.

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