When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

This was a holiday book for me, a big book at the moment. It’s “the spirit of the age” retold in a story, but it’s a really good story.

The first half of the book is really well written – shades of “The Curious Incident” and “Black Swan Green” – a story of growing up from a child’s point of view. Elly grows up confiding deeply in her brother, almost worshipping him. At one point in her childhood something terrible happens to her, and he is the only one who ever knows. She almost lives for him – all of the significant points of her childhood are about him – his return from school, the New Year she spent with him. Of course, that raises huge and painful questions when, for various reasons, he is unable to fulfil that role in her life any more. (I won’t spoil the plot by telling you how!)

As she grows up Elly also gets a rabbit, whom she names god. Cue some (predictable) horrified reactions from establishment figures! Eventually god dies, but reappears at significant points in Elly’s life when she needs comfort or help.

The second half of the book, Elly’s grown up life is rather less well written and a bit more typical twenty something angst. And, sadly, while the plot still unfolds gripplingly and it’s very readable, the book amost becomes a parody of spirituality without god, and relationships without objective values.

The parents particularly are totally unbelievable in their uber-liberal accepting attitudes. Is it really likely that a couple of baby boomers who have lived in Essex and Cornwall would not bat an eyelid at their son being gay? Maybe. Would the dad say “it’s about time” when he discovers his wife has had a snog with his lesbian sister? I think not.

You see, Elly may express her disdain for the traditional God, by calling her rabbit god, by painting a picture of the world where super-liberal values “win” but there’s still a hint of “something more” – the reappearing rabbit, the bump on the boat where they sail over where the ashes of the friend were scattered, the strange coincidences in the face of tragedy. There is a longing to find pattern, comfort, meaning somehow in life. In the author’s note she says that violence “just happens” – but in the book there is some meaning to it, or redemption from it.

The fact is, if God is a rabbit, what we see is all there is is us. Elly finds that; in her confusion about what she experienced and shared with her brother when he can’t be her confidante any more. A god  who is just a rabbit, is no help at all in our personal needs for love, help, acceptance. If God is a rabbit, only people can give us those things – except, as Elly discovers, they can’t. Yes, it certainly means that we my choose to live however we want, but the rabbit God is no help at all in a crisis – and it’s disingenuous of the author to suggest that he is.

A tip of the hat to spirituality doesn’t actually comfort Elly in that: our dead rabbits are not watching us, our dead friends are not bumping the boat as we sail over their ashes.

Or maybe they are! Maybe there is someone out there who can actually know us, comfort us, and order our lives. But then, we can’t ignore that person and just do what we like.

When God was a Rabbit is a really good read – but what it’s saying about the world is, in the end, just not livable.

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