TagSarah Moss

Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit (2011)

Sarah Winman’s first novel is a story of family, friendship, love, and what can hold together lives that threaten to disintegrate. Our narrator is Elly Portman, who chronicles her life from early childhood in the 1970s; there is darkness from the start, but it’s intertwined with fortune and levity. A pools win, for example, allows Alfie and Kate Portman to fulfil a dream of moving the family from Essex to Cornwall to open a B&B; but it means Elly must say goodbye to her best friend, Jenny Penny – and this not long after Elly’s older brother Joe had to bid his own farewell to Charlie, the rugby friend who was becoming so much more than a friend, but then moved away to Dubai.

The way that Winman mixes light and shade in her novel is quite something; one is never far away from the other. The scene set at Elly’s nativity play is hilarious, even as it tips over into tragedy. When Alfie leaves his job as a lawyer in preparation for the move to Cornwall, he ends up sitting in his car, distraught; I found the passage describing why to be one of the most powerful in the book. There’s also an effective subtlety to how Winman reveals (or hints at) her characters’ secrets and situations, especially in the novel’s first half.

In its second half, When God Was a Rabbit jumps forward to the mid-1990s, when Elly has become a journalist, Joe has gone to live in New York, and Jenny Penny is in prison. The prose in this section loses some of its subtlety, as a consequence of Elly’s more perceptive adult viewpoint; but that greater directness reflects the theme, running through this half, of life’s brightness receding. Time catches up with some of the colourful secondary characters; and, whereas Elly’s childhood naivety could deflect the impact of tragedy to an extent, the adult Elly has no such means of defence. She finds herself wishing she could go back to the old days (the novel’s title, referring to Elly’s pet rabbit, represents her childhood, a golden age even though it had its share of calamity) – but, of course, she can’t.

In the world of When God Was a Rabbit, though, there is hope even when life is at its bleakest. There’s a slightly heightened sense of reality about the novel – in the sheer number of bad things that come into the Portmans’ lives, or Elly’s imagining that her rabbit can speak – which allows Winman to stretch her plot and characters that bit further than they might otherwise go. There’s also a rolling rhythm to the author’s prose which makes it very engaging to read. All in all, When God Was a Rabbit is a work of considerable charm.

(This review also appears in the Huffington Post.)

Elsewhere
Richard & Judy Book Club interview with Sarah Winman.
Some other reviews of When God Was a Rabbit: Savidge Reads; Katie’s Book Blog; For Books’ Sake.

Fiction Uncovered: the list

The Fiction Uncovered list has been announced. The idea behind this initiative was to highlight books from the past year by eight established UK writers whose work may not have had all the exposure it deserves. You’ll be seeing displays of these titles in bookshops; let’s look at what the judges have chosen…

Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre (Alma Books)

Clarke is the only author of the eight whose name was completely unknown to me, though I understand now that he has written seven novels. I’m not sure that the synopsis of The Water Theatre (a war-reporter searches for two old friends, without knowing that they harbour a secret) instinctively appeals to me, but I am pleased to have been alerted to an unfamiliar writer.

Robert Edric, The London Satyr (Doubleday)

Edric is one of two writers on the list whom I’ve already read, albeit a different book in this case. I had mixed feelings about Salvage, but would certainly read the author again. The London Satyr sounds rather different in setting and subject matter, as it examines the dark underbelly of Victorian society in the 1890s.

Catherine Hall, The Proof of Love (Portobello)

A mathematician spends a summer working as a farmhand in the Lake District, and gets tangled up in the lives of the locals. I have The Proof of Love to review next for the Fiction Uncovered site; now I know that it’s on the list, my anticipation has only increased.

Sarah Moss, Night Waking (Granta)

I’ve heard interesting things about Moss’s previous novel, Cold Earth. This new novel, which interweaves the stories of a mother and her young family on a Hebridean island in the present day, and a midwife attempting to address infant mortality on the island in the 19th century, alaso sounds intriguing.

Chris Paling, Nimrod’s Shadow (Portobello)

I experienced an ‘Aha!’ moment when Paling’s name was read out, when I realised I’d seen his work being recommended before, but had forgotten about it. At the time, I was convinced it was Scott Pack I’d read enthusing about Paling’s books, but actually I was thinking of this piece by Stuart Evers. Anyway, Nimrod’s Shadow — the tale of an Edwardian murder and its investigation in the present day by an office assistant who finds clues in paintings from the time — has gone staright on my to-read list.

Tim Pears, Disputed Land (Heinemann)

Pears is one of those writers of whose name I’ve been aware without really knowing anything about his work. Again, Disputed Land is not a novel that grabs me just from its synopsis (a man looks back on the childhood Christmas when his grandparents summoned their family to discuss their inheritance), but I’ll look into Pears’ bibliography.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (Heinemann)

The only book on the Fiction Uncovered list that I’ve already read; one of my very favourite reads of last year; and a novel that absolutely deserves its place here. Emma Donoghue’s Room has received plenty of attention, and Forgetting Zoë (which likewise deals with the long-term captivity of a child, though otherwise the two books are quite different) rather less so; but I think Robinson’s novel is the better of the two, and I hope more people will now take the time to discover it.

Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (Polygon/Birlinn)

In the 1930s, a girl is sent from Berlin to England on the Kindertransport, but loses touch with her family when war comes. I’d already heard of this novel, but was undecided about reading it; its appearance on this list might just spur me on to do so.

***

Overall impressions of the list? I’ve no reason to doubt the quality of the books (and if Forgetting Zoë is the standard, then that’s great); but, structurally, it feels something of a missed opportunity. For one thing, Fiction Uncovered was open to prose novels, story collections, and graphic novels; but there are no books from the latter two categories on the final list {*}. 75% of the authors are male, all are white, and all (as far I’m aware) English. There are no books published as genre fiction on the list. Half the titles do come from independent publishers, though, which is good to see.

Whatever the shape of the list, though, I do wish the best to all the authors featured, and hope they gain more attention as a result of Fiction Uncovered.

[*Since posting this originally, I have heard from Fiction Uncovered that relatively few story collections were submitted by publishers, and no graphic novels at all.]

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