Discussion: When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

Actor Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, is a tantalizing read, with quirky and original characters, an endearing voice, and plotlines that twist and turn and have even the characters gasping out loud.

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When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

When actor Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, was first released last year, it received almost universal critical acclaim for its engaging tale of a young girl, her brother and the calamities they face over a period of some 30 years. Now that it’s being released in paperback, we couldn’t resist revisiting it as our June 2012 Book Club Pick. It’s a tantalizing read, with quirky and original characters, an endearing voice, and plotlines that twist and turn and have even the characters gasping out loud. Winman has also created one of the funniest, most touching depictions of childhood we’ve come across. As she says, “Sometimes we laugh because we simply can’t cry anymore.”

Here, Alex, Lora and I discuss the ways in which Winman managed to captivate all three of us so wholeheartedly.

Laurie: Hello! So, Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit!! Go!

Alex: One of my TOP reads of last year. I was so happy to read it again. Such a talented writer.

Lora: I absolutely adored this book.

Laurie: Why did you both like it so much?

Lora: The first thing was the brother-sister relationship. I have a big bro and we’ve always been pretty close (more so now that we’re older) and the dynamic between Elly and Joe was just so perfect.

Alex: I love the sibling bond and the evolution of that relationship over time. Also I loved the way it was written in two parts: past and present. I found Elly the most captivating heroine at both stages of her life and especially her child’s voice. Elly was almost a genius in her observations, and they were so poignant through her innocent eyes, and having to fill in the blanks made some of the revelations so much more gasp-inducing (e.g. Mr. Golan — grrrrrrrr).

Lora: For me, as well. And while I could predict some of what happened, a lot of it caught me off guard.

Laurie: It’s interesting that you note that about the two parts. A number of people who have reviewed the book have observed that for them that structure was a weakness. I didn’t necessarily find it to be so, although I didn’t find the second half as riveting as the first. Elly’s voice in the first half and the humour were much more on point. Perhaps simply because an adult voice isn’t as entertaining as a child’s.

Alex: You’re right — Elly was SO much funnier as a child!! But maybe that’s because it was so innocent — she wasn’t trying to be funny, and it’s a more unconventional style.

Lora: I agree that the writing was stronger in the first half. It would have been a different book completely, though, without the second half.

Alex: Plus, in the second half it felt like more things happened — there were more details to include and maybe to some it felt that diluted the writing a tiny bit, although I don’t think that’s the case. I loved this inside and out. I think it’s harder to talk poignantly about what happens to us as adults, but when you’re talking about kids it seems more poetic somehow and tugs harder on your heartstrings.

Laurie: I like it as is. I’m not sure how Winman could have ended the story with just the first half and have it be as satisfactory, but the voice of the older Elly is more flat, more emotionally dead. I do find it interesting to see how Joe and Elly have grown up, and immensely touching to see that they haven’t come through things unscathed. It’s so melancholy and yet full of hope.

Alex: I know! I just loved the way the brother-sister relationship developed.

Lora: And I could understand why Elly’s voice was a bit more jaded when she grew up.

Laurie: It’s as if she just stopped. Dead-ended and couldn’t go on.

Alex: But her relationship with Jenny Penny keeps her ticking. She starts to find the enthusiasm to live rekindling through that relationship and her search for her brother, etc. It’s almost like she’s most alive when she’s challenged.

Laurie: Yes, and yet she still can’t connect with others. For instance, there’s that night when she has sex with that man in New York, but that’s all it is really — a momentary connection and then nothing. She can’t let go of the past, even though she has such a wonderful family and such support. But her secret lies buried and she’s still a child hiding.

Alex: It’s true. She can’t move beyond that violation of trust. And even before that, there was something about her that meant she just didn’t fit in.

Laurie: In so many ways, none of them fit in or feel comfortable except together. They’re all misfits, and yet they’re all so accepting of each other. And that’s what’s so sad. If there’s anywhere that Elly could and should and would fit in, it’s there and with her family and their friends. It something that should give us all hope of fitting in, if those people in their eccentricities can — if we can take what makes us feel different and sad and reconcile ourselves to it. Maybe that’s what Elly’s problem is. At one point, her father says to her, “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? To stand apart and be different?” but she’s just not up for it yet.

Lora: I’m so glad that Sarah didn’t try to wrap things up in a neat little bow. Even though Elly has an amazing support system in her loving, kind, funny family.

Alex: The silver lining is already there: that the most motley crew can love and support each other, and that love doesn’t have to come in a conventional form. You can collect it up from anywhere. I wish Elly would have let her brother tell the secret. Why did he listen to a six year old?

Lora: Holding onto a secret that painful would just eat away at you.

Laurie: Life is way too complicated for things to be perfect. And if they were, everything would be too flat and boring. And that’s what makes them all so interesting and wonderful. I want to live with them at Trehaven, and eat crabs and clams and whatever — the perfect place and the perfect people! Happiness mixed together with the messiness of life to keep things interesting.

Alex: Me, too!

Lora: I loved all of those scenes at Trehaven in the second half. Sarah really nailed the characters, didn’t she? All of them were so unique and so endearing in their own ways.

Alex: JENNY PENNY!!!!

Laurie: Yes. Poor Jenny Penny. And what a name for her mother to have given her — so like Henny Penny the chicken who believes disaster is ever-present, although with such a careless mother, it would be no surprise. And Joe was a cipher, but I think he was to himself.

Lora: Every time Jenny Penny came up in the second half, I lost my breath. Or sat straight up in bed. She was such an interesting character!

Alex: She was even more complex than Elly, I thought. And interesting that she stayed on the periphery. Winman kept us at a distance from her, as well as keeping Elly at a distance from her, which meant she had even more mystique. She was almost mythical… the coin out of the arm?!?!

Laurie: I know!!! So bizarre and such a strange child.

Lora: So strange. So much despair around her but so much hope just emanating from her.

Alex: Yes, with her unruly hair. Bless.

Laurie: And what was with the funerals? Her mother taking them to funerals! And a child’s funeral to boot. She traumatized them.

Lora: That was so bizarre.

Alex: Not to me.

Laurie: No?

Alex: People like to feel sad sometimes. They initiate it and find it validates emotions they might be feeling.

Laurie: But that was Jenny’s mother’s choice, not theirs, and she shouldn’t have inflicted it on them.

Lora: She didn’t seem like a woman who had much control. When she wasn’t going to these funerals and letting her emotions out, she was numbing them.

Laurie: She wasn’t responsible enough for herself, much less a child.

Alex: What’s crazy is we really feel for Elly and what she went through, and it is intimated later that Jenny Penny went through similar stuff with some of her mom’s many boyfriends.

Laurie: We don’t know enough about what was going on with Jenny, that’s the problem. Although we can imagine it — all those boyfriends in and out.

Lora: That was so heart-breaking — having to call all of them Uncle so-and-so.

Alex:  And that’s the point I think Winman was trying to make: All this stuff happens all the time and as humans we just do our best to continue and grow with what we have around us.

Laurie: I was so wishing Jenny could move in with Elly, that Elly’s mum would just say to Jenny’s mum, Hey, let us just take care of her for a while and take a load off you. But yes, we all just do our best.

Lora: Me, too, but then I think some of the mystery surrounding Jenny Penny would have disappeared.

Laurie: Of course. Not good for the book, good for Jenny! Did all the coincidences in the book feel contrived to you or just part of the magic? Like 9/11, the coconut, the lottery, running into Charlie,
etc.

Alex: I didn’t notice there were so many, so I guess not, haha!

Lora: The coconut felt pretty contrived — but I loved it!

Laurie: I liked it. It went with the whole talking rabbit thing. I just suspended my disbelief whole-heartedly. I think it could annoy some people, though.

Alex: Me, too, Laurie. I thought 9/11 was a really interesting inclusion: contrasting personal versus public tragedy.

Lora: Yes, I loved the way Winman explored the experience of 9/11.

Laurie: The most touching thing for me was the placing of the photos on the wall/fence.

Alex: Oh, I know. I had goosebumps.

Lora: Especially when they went back the second time.

Laurie: It’s something I’ve been noticing is popping up in different books that are set during different periods of history. It’s like a shared historical experience that feels fresh to every generation but is something we’re doomed to repeat over and over again.

Lora: And everyone seems to look at it in a different way, though it’s always tragic.

Alex: Reading about 9/11 reminds you how horrendous it was. There was a part of me that was so incredulous. Not that I forgot it happened, but maybe that I blocked it out. And that’s obviously a defense mechanism and one that is echoed in the way that people — like Elly — deal with personal trauma.

Laurie: And how everyone is caught up by events out of our control and that’s such a big part of what goes on this book. How we react to things outside ourselves and internalize them and go on in spite of them.

Alex: Everyone’s affected and not just in the most obvious ways.

Lora: That’s what I loved about the way Winman explored the events.

Laurie: And there’s Elly’s father and how terribly he was affected by that case he worked on throughout his entire life. So much sadness and sorrow, and yet he and his family manage to conjure up so much joy in the face of it.

Lora: It’s similar with Nancy and Elly’s mom. And Arthur, even. And Ginger.

Alex: They’ve had to learn how to celebrate life.

Laurie: They all really are a lesson on how to live well, aren’t they, every one of them, except maybe, Elly, would you say? Until after the book’s ending perhaps? So essentially this is a self-help book, disguised as fiction, haha!

Lora: I’d say so.

Alex: Me, too. The joie de vivre. But I also feel like Elly is on the precipice of something great.

Laurie: For sure! She and Jenny.

Lora: The book ended at the perfect moment.

Alex: Yes, for both of them. They get a movie deal out of that column!

Lora: I want EVERYONE to go out and get a copy of this book. And spend a whole weekend reading and absorbing it all.

Alex: Me, too! I already gave a copy to my sister.

Laurie: Excellent! Lovely chatting with you both about it. Next time, for our August issue, we’ll be talking about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Looking forward to it!

Lora: Me, too — looks like another excellent read!

Alex: Can’t wait! Until the next time…