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When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman | Book Review |

“Everyone had a story of grief. Everyone else’s was worse than yours.”― Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit

Title: When God was a Rabbit

Genre: Fiction / YA

Publisher: Tinder Press

Author: Sarah Winman

A British actress and writer, Sarah Winman impressed with her debut novel When God was a Rabbit. It received numerous awards including the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award and the 2011 Galaxy National Book Award for Galaxy New Writer of the Year. Her other two published works are A Year of Marvellous Ways and Tin Man.

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When god was a rabbit- Sarah Winman - book review- book blogger


The tale centers on our over-imaginative narrator-heroine Elly, her granite solid brother Joe and her quirky strange friend Jenny Penny. Plus an assorted set of parents, aunt, and two long term guests who only death does apart from them. The novel is divided in two timelines, both being narrated by Elly.
Set in the 60s & 70s in Essex and Cornwall, England, the tale travels to New York city in the 2000s and traces the roller coaster ride of misfortunes these three seem to be on wherever they go. Through it all their bonds, though do sometimes become misplaced, remain strong and unbreakable. There is a liberal sprinkling of tragic world events such as the Holocaust, John Lennon’s death, 9/11 in NY – some of which do influence the story line.
When Joe learns of the sexual misconduct Elly encounters via their mentally disturbed neighbor, he gifts her a pet rabbit to console her. Convinced she needs a new God to love her, thats what she names her rabbit and thereon can hear him talk to her at times.
Joe knows he is gay since he was a child and loves his best friend Charlie who though returns the love, moves an entire continent away, leaving him halved in the middle. They both find each other again, get separated and then reunite in the most dramatic fashion.

“… I wrote about … my childhood, when dreams were small and attainable for all. When sweets were a penny and god was a rabbit.”― Sarah Winman

Jenny Penny is rescued by her friendship with Elly from her abusive “uncles” whom her “loose living” mother seems to have a penchant for. Jenny Penny is blessed with thick unruly hair that leaves her in tears. She is further traumatized by her mother’s fascination to attend funerals of strangers and feel sad for them. Jenny Penny mysteriously disappears one day leaving Elly broken-hearted only to reunite years later through a letter which she is writing from a prison.
Elly’s lesbian aunt Nancy is in love with her mother, whom she fixes up with her brother (Elly’s father) so that she becomes part of the family. She remains enamored throughout the tale – a fact not lost on her brother, who accepts it with good humor. Nancy is the glue that holds the family together with her whimsical common sense.
Owing to a lucky strike, the family wins a huge lottery and decide to move to Cornwall to set up and run a B&B. This is where “God” is run over by a guest and Elly is left bereft once again. She finds some solace in their long term boarder. After some aimless wandering in high school and college, Elly moves to New York and takes up a job at a newspaper while Joe too moves there to be close to her.

“the need to be remembered is stronger than the need to remember.”― Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit

Elly takes to writing a daily column in a newspaper through which she sifts events & relationships of her life and present them in a new Avatar, which makes for the most endearing part of the tale. She re-purposes the lives and relationships of actual people in her life, and presents them as fictitious people in her column. She discovers an ability to sift through her troubles by doing so and having a clearer perspective of her life.
Jenny Penny reconnects with Elly at long last but has been convicted of murdering her abusive husband. They both are unable to find the courage to meet each other and stay in touch via their letters.
9/11 rips through Elly’s life when Joe goes missing, only to be found but with no recollection of who he is. They return to England to jog his memory by living in familiar surroundings with known faces around him. Elly discovers things about her relationship with Joe that she had always taken for granted. This is one of the toughest things she has to face in her life.

Lasting impression on me:

The author has strangely written a dark yet comic first novel which satirizes growing up with the utmost whimsical thought. This is one of the best stories I have read about the most dysfunctional yet normal characters who made me weep buckets with their endearing-ness. The ritualistic self consciousness that comes with growing up with the heart wrenching miseries that a child encounters and the bravado with which they try to navigate life through – this is what is the core of the book!!!

I loved how she narrated the aftermath of 9/11 as if she personally experienced it. I had seen it all in the news on the TV and could relate to it but her description of it and how she wove it through the lives of her characters, stood out for me.

Of all the characters, the one who really stole my heart is Jenny Penny who is such a mystery by the way Winman has kept her on the periphery of the entire tale. She is an important part of Elly’s story but not everything is known about her. Just bits dished out miserly which hint at a troubled life of a child desperate to be loved.

Not all is dark in the novel and the whimsical humor that is bound in this tale is just amazing. First its through the precociousness of 4-year-old Elly and her description of life, events and people. Then the comic character sketches of the actors in this story, each with their tell-tale quirk will make you laugh out aloud at the oddest moments.

“When we left the house both my mother and father had shed a tear as their beloved son walked out into the cold night air dressed as a daughter, unsure as to what he might return as. That, my father would later say, was one of the unexpected gifts of parenthood.”― Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit

There are so many tragedies and all happen just when the world has righted itself up again for the characters, that one is forced to wonder if this is all too contrived. But that’s where the magic in Winman’s writing lies. She has made excellent use of the light and shade to present a tale full of love and growing up.

My rating:

With all the tragedies and dark moments, life shines through with the cheekiest humor and quirkiness that made this one of the best reads of the year for me and I am giving it a 5/5 star rating!! . Sarah Winman has etched out every character as if she has a bucket list of people she wants to live her life through. She gets into their heads so effortlessly, making them relatable and people one would want to make friends with. Don’t miss out on reading this book!!

Don’t miss out on my review of Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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12 thoughts on “When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman | Book Review |

  1. This sounds like a really good book! I especially liked how Elly becomes a column writer sharing about real life people in a fictitious manner in her columns. Let’s hope I find this book some day.
    Thanks for the review, Shalz!

    1. Oh yes this is a beautiful book and I do hope you pick it up. Sarah Winman has quite a way of saying things and this book proves it. I am so looking forward to picking up her 3rd book in this year.

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