When God Was a Rabbit Sarah Winman

Headline Review, pp.325, 13

The title of this first novel refers to a version of childhood as a magical kingdom where evil can be overturned and heaven and earth remade at the whim of a power-crazed infant. In fact our narrator’s world has already been darkened by the time she is presented by her beloved elder brother with the rabbit she insists on calling God. She has been sexually abused by an elderly neighbour, a Jewish musician who fascinates her with tales of the concentration camp in which he was never interned. The brother discovers the betrayal, promises to keep it a secret and — this all happens in the first 30 pages — terrifies the elderly musician into suicide.

Oh dear — already I am referring to Mr Golan as ‘the elderly musician’ as though I were, in some way, on his side. It is indeed tempting to champion the lonely misfit — if only because his victim, Elly, comes across as a monster without meaning to out herself as anything more troubling than brave and disturbed. In fact she is the best advertisement for letting go of the inner child that I have ever encountered.

Her story begins in 1968 and continues until some months after 9/11, taking in a childhood move from Essex to Cornwall and adult spells in New York and London. The cast is made up for the most part of loving, distracted, faintly zany wouldbegoods. Some work, or have worked, in the theatre, others dream of doing so.

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The plot is moved forward by the sort of devices beloved of children’s stories — a win at the football pools, the death and resurrection of a beloved pet, telepathic links between best friends torn apart by wayward parents, lovers reunited by catastrophe.

The novel is shaped by the gap of time between the abuse suffered by Elly as a child and her parents’ understanding, when the brave little girl is revealed in all her brave little girl glory. It is the childish sensibility, not the tricks themselves, which make Winman’s debut so unsatisfactory. Elly tells her story with no idea that the self-conscious prattling of a nevertobegainsaid infant is bad enough when relayed by a besotted parent, but unbearable when narrated by the grown-up child without any corresponding growth of existential understanding.

Elly measures everything that happens according to whether it increases or diminishes her power. This might work in a novel which aimed to unpick the bones of a demonic will to wrap the world in saccharine bounty — Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness is just such a work of art — but Winman’s portrait has no such satiric edge. There are occasional glimpses of something richer and more reflective, as when Elly befriends a girl from a chaotic background and is

transfixed by the possibility of imagination within this home … This wasn’t the quiet symmetry of my everyday … This was a world devoid of harmony … a world of drama, where comedy and tragedy fought for space.

But of course tragedy has to win, hands down, as soon as Elly removes her winsomely protective gaze from this refreshing household.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Fiction, Novel, Novelists