When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman – Book Review

Title: When God Was a Rabbit

Author: Sarah Winman

Genre/Themes: General Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Family, Siblings

Blurb from Goodreads

This is a book about a brother and a sister. It’s a book about secrets and starting over, friendship and family, triumph and tragedy, and everything in between. More than anything, it’s a book about love in all its forms.

In a remarkably honest and confident voice, Sarah Winman has written the story of a memorable young heroine, Elly, and her loss of innocence- a magical portrait of growing up and the pull and power of family ties.

From Essex and Cornwall to the streets of New York, from 1968 to the events of 9/11, When God Was a Rabbit follows the evolving bond of love and secrets between Elly and her brother Joe, and her increasing concern for an unusual best friend, Jenny Penny, who has secrets of her own.

With its wit and humor, engaging characters whose eccentricities are adroitly and sometimes darkly drawn, and its themes of memory and identity, When God Was a Rabbit is a love letter to true friendship and fraternal love.

My Review

When God Was a Rabbit’ is a book about love and friendship. It tells the sibling love story of a brother and sister as they go from childhood to adulthood while also being an interesting dissection of family life as seen through the eyes of the youngest family member.

The book is told through the point of view of Elly: initially as a young girl who sees the world with magical eyes and then as a grown woman who has become weary of spirit.

The book is split into two halves; quite simply called part one and part two. Part one starts with the birth of Elly in 1968 and continues up until December 1980.

From the earliest age Elly is portrayed as highly inquisitive and extremely capable. She seemed to have an almost ethereal or other-worldly feel about her and quite happily made conversation and friendships with adults; one such pivotal ‘friendship’ was that with her elderly next door neighbour Mr Golan who turned out to be a very emotionally disturbed individual. Within the first few chapters we see the inappropriateness of this relationship with the young girl and something happens, a secret is shared, that shapes the rest of both Elly and her brother Joe’s lives.

It is at this point in the book we are introduced to the character God from the story’s title. God is a pet rabbit that Elly’s brother gifts to her so that she will have a more appropriate friend and will not be lonely. A recurring theme throughout this book is Elly’s search for a real god or a better understanding of religion.

The most focused upon relationship in this book is the one between Elly and her brother Joe. Joe is five years older than Elly and very protective of her. From her earliest age Elly viewed Joe as “an exotic creature”. He was a rank outsider who liked to quietly rebel against the conservative world. Joe was struggling with being gay in a time period when it was much more difficult to be so. Elly’s love for her brother is absolutely beautiful and incredibly sensitively written.

When events jumped forward fifteen years for part two of the novel I felt a little let down and if I am truly honest, I almost wish they hadn’t. Part one was so magical and the language was so lyrical that I just got lost in the pages of Elly’s childhood, and so seeing the children as adults somewhat tarnished that happy experience for me.

When we met Elly again it was 1995 and she was twenty-seven years old, running from job to job, having panic attacks and had not been in a stable and healthy relationship but did not seem to know why. Her brother Joe had run away to New York where he could feel freer and be more comfortably out. He still seemed to be burdened within his soul whether by a lost childhood love or by the secret that Elly had sworn him to keep and seemed to constantly be hiding from something.

You had to translate his actions, for they were seldom accompanied by words, because his world was a quiet world; a disconnected, fractured space; a puzzle that made him phone me at 3 o’clock in the morning, asking me for the last piece of the border so he could fill in the sky

A sense of knowing who you are and becoming comfortable with yourself was a great theme of this novel. It was interesting to see how their childhoods had created such complex and troubled adult characters but for me part two was not as moving as part one. It lost some of that feeling of magic; that ethereal touch that the author had so lovingly given to part one.

However the plot was carried forward nicely and I sped through this section reading it twice as quickly as the first. The first section in contrast felt very languid; reading it reminded me of an afternoon of a hot summer’s day running into a warm night, everything was just so still and calm.

I really enjoyed this book. It had a wonderful other worldly quality to it and it was a heartfelt account of the trials and tribulations of a family. It really demonstrated how a person’s whole world really just revolves around a very small number of people: those who you are related to and your closest of friends.

Perhaps as a negative you could say this family experienced one or two too many shocks, tragic events or catastrophic life events…it is like the whole gamut of bad experiences are put into this novel, from sexual abuse to hostage taking to amnesia, and sometimes it seemed as if these events were only put in place to shock.

However, to give the author their due, each was used as a wonderful plot device and I did enjoy the journey of life that Elly and her family took within the pages of this book.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves reading beautiful, descriptive prose.

Other Works by Sarah Winman I’ve Reviewed

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