on 10 August 2011
A very unusual book, told from the perspective of a young, then older girl / woman as she moves through her life. As the book states, though it is written very much like an autobiographical account, it really only focuses on the key moments of her life - the moments that hold the most impact, the most important or pivotal moments. For that reason, one could easily be forgiven for thinking it a more sensationalised life story - but it really isn't. Take your own life as an example, think of the biggest and most influential moments of your life - be they positive or negative, if you put them into a story, but omitted most of what was in between each event, you'd probably have quite a sensational story of your own!
This story focuses on the key moments from the life of Eleanor Maud, a young girl from a nice, loving family. Her parents love her and she has a very close relationship with her older brother Joe. Despite coming from a loving and protective home, Ellie still sees the ugly side of life, her parents placing trust where it doesn't belong, or brushes with death of family / friends. However the biggest exposure to the darker side of life for Ellie is when she meets Jenny Penny. Jenny is a girl of roughly the same age but who doesn't come from a loving or responsible home. Jenny struggles with life and though she never really envies Ellie and her family, she longs to be a part of it. Ellie's realisation that not all families are the same, and not everyone is as lucky as her is a key theme throughout the book. Even later in the book when she is older, this idea that, through all life has thrown at her, she should still feel fortunate really holds true.
The story, despite being fiction, feels so honest and true - there are elements that MUST be from Sarah Winman (the author)'s own life. Inspired by events in hers, others and indeed all of our lives, this is one book that I really found difficult to put down. I had to read on, I worried about the characters - I wanted to share their good times and bad.
Comparisons with Mark Haddon I think are very fair (especially if you have read 'A spot of Bother')but also a very personal style of her own, I shall be looking forward to Sarah Winman's next book.
You'll laugh and cry in equal measure and if you are as lucky as me, recognize some of your own family's dysfunctional brilliance!
on 7 October 2011
I enjoyed this book tremendously. Read in two evening sittings, the pages turned themselves. I had avoided the book a little due to the title, but Atheists can rest easy, this is not a God book. I found that I did connect to the characters, although they were not always totally likeable. If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be Pathos. It fulfilled the criteria for "something different". I read two or three books a week and unlike many others I found myself describing this book to my husband. I understand many of the criticisms levelled at this book and in many cases agree. However, this book entertained me, made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think. What more?
Elly Portman, the narrator of this accomplished debut novel, describes her life and that of her family, friends and neighbours over some 4 decades from the end of the 1960s. The locations range from Essex to Cornwall and thence to New York, each of which is very effectively drawn and populated with characters that, even when they stretch credulity, nevertheless seem perfectly fitted to the broad scope of this book.
Sex, in all its forms, is never far from the heart of this book but, in most cases, in contains very little love, which however permeates the relationships between Elly, her brother, Joe and her parents, between Elly's mother and her husband's actress sister, Nancy, and between Elly and her schoolfriend, Jenny. The dark tone of the book is set by her mother's parents dying in a coach crash, sending her mother into a long period of depression. However, humour is immediately inserted, with the surviving tour guide telling the TV camera that "although it was a tragic accident, they had just eaten so they died happy".
The childhoods of Elly and Jenny each contain enjoyable and very black periods that, to differing degrees, cast shadows over their lives. In fact, tragedy and humour are intimately mixed throughout the novel and it is in deciding the exact balance that the author appears most accomplished. She has, perhaps, added a few too many plums to her pie, but ambition is not something to be denied in a first novel. In general, her characterisation is excellent, with even minor characters, such as her teacher, Mrs Grogan, and their Essex neighbors, Mr Golan and Mr Harris, being so well drawn that they are retained in one's mind's eye. Only in the case of Ginger, much more than a mere a Shirley Bassey impersonator, did I feel that Winman was gouging out the character rather too deeply, but then was won over by the single line that "There was no left, no right any more in Ginger's world; life was lived straight ahead".
Winman tells only so much of her narrator's story, leaving gaps for the reader to complete. When Elly's father wins on the football pools it leads to the family moving to a remote house in Cornwall, which the parent renovate and then open for bed and breakfasts. The dark and light of the novel is sharply contrasted with Jenny and her brother saying very emotional goodbyes to their best friends in Essex but, when they reach Cornwall, realising how fortunate they are.
In the second, and bleaker, part of her book, Winman presents Elly in the 1990s as a journalist living in London whilst her brother is in New York. Out of the blue, Elly receives a letter from Jenny and finds out that her circumstances have changed for the worst. One senses the narrator's disappointment with life, in general, and her own, in particular, and her reflections on childhood are presented as illusory and rose-tinted.
This is an optimistic novel although the search for a happier life is helped by Elly's father not being killed in two terrorist explosions, by her mother successfully dicing with death, by her brother's recovery in hospital and his regaining of his memory, by winning the pools and by her own ability to block out what had happened to her as a child. There is also a fortunate escape from `death by coconut'. As might be imagined, this is not a book for a reader who demands realism and credibility, after all, rabbits rarely talk outside of Lewis Carroll.
To help her to forget her childhood trauma, Joe buys his sister a Belgian hare, a pet she names `god', with a small `g', whose arrival sparks off pages of marvelous writing. It is unsurprising that this extremity cannot be maintained throughout, but its fall is only very slight. The central relationship between Elly and Joe is beautifully set out describing, as it does, the interaction of two introverted individuals who are only able to confide in one another.
By including so many factual incidents, Winman runs the risk of superficiality and of using tragic events as mere hooks on which to hang her storyline, and whilst she teeters on the very edge several times, she manages to avoid falling. The events, personal and international, in New York were always likely to be resolved by the author in the way that she does so the tension of expectation was largely missing.
At the end of the novel, Headline Publishing Group have supplied an Author's Note, and her thoughts on The Inspiration for `When God was a Rabbit' and Life as a Writer. Generally, I cringe at the superficiality of such notes, but in this case I was enthralled. Both the author and the publishers deserve great credit for such delivering and presenting such a fulfilling book.
on 9 June 2011
Firstly, let me say that I did enjoy this book, and I realise I'm in the minority in not thinking it is amazing. So, fully anticipating a lynching, I will list what I thought was wrong with it:
- Simply far too much happens. It seems as if the author has taken everything she has ever thought about and splurged it on the page. She touches on a wide range of topics, each one of which could occupy a whole book by itself, but she barely skims them. This is not only overwhelming to the reader, but it serves to trivialise these important issues. There also doesn't appear to be any uniting theme. There is an element of 'and then this happened, and then this happened' and the reader is left wondering why.
- I couldn't identify with the main character, who appeared to be a wry observer who was unaffected by the events in her life. I think this would have worked better told in the third person, as we never really get under the skin of the narrator.
- The narrative is all over the place, appearing disjointed and unedited - something which really isn't helped by the gap between each paragraph, which gives the impression of a change in scene/time and causes the reader to readjust every time it happens.
So onto the good stuff. Firstly, the book was extremely funny, in a very subtle way. Several times I laughed out loud and I applaud the author for this: genuinely funny writing is hard to come by. Secondly, the writing and the descriptions are very beautiful, and some of the similes are spot on and breathtaking. These two things alone deserve three stars, and I was so impressed with them I would like to give the book more. However, a beautiful style and impeccable comic timing do not, unfortunately, make up for unlikeable characters, disjointed story telling and a lack of unity. Sorry, guys.
Warning: Contains plot spoilers
Written in the first person, this is a (fictitious) biographical account of Eleanor and her unconventional, yet loving family. The reader accompanies her through childhood trauma and friendship until the age of twelve; we then rejoin her at the age of 26, now a rather disillusioned adult.
I was intrigued by the title and had heard lots of good reviews about this book but unfortunately it didn't live up to its expectations, in my opinion. As you can already tell from my synopsis, there isn't really much to say about the plot, mainly because it's such a hotchpotch of separate events that only have Eleanor in common. Some of the things happening to her and her family and friends are (in no particular order): a coach accident that kills her grandparents; her father escaping several bomb attacks; sexual abuse; a football pools win; a kidnap; a prison sentence for murder; cancer; an assault and mugging with resulting amnesia on the day before 9/11 - all a bit far-fetched, don't you think? As the author states in her notes at the end of the book, "had the book's timeframe extended beyond 2001, the atrocity of Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004 and London in July 2005 would all have been mentioned too". I have no doubt that somehow Eleanor, a friend or a member of her family would all have been caught up in those events as well (rather like Forrest Gump?). The question is, why accumulate such an array of life-changing experiences when one or two would have sufficed and made the novel more credible? It's somehow like the author had lots of ideas to bring to this project, and lots of messages to get across, but didn't know how to tie them all together and so turned the book into a memoir of sorts. Some of the events are described in great detail, others are merely touched upon and then dropped. (Did anyone understand the bit with Jenny Penny pulling a 50-pence piece from the future from inside her arm?) Her prose is quite beautiful at times, and yet she could find no other verbs to replace "said": half a page of alternating "I said", "he/she said" made me want to scream at times. The mystical plot devices (Arthur's "knowledge" of his death, Jenny Penny reading tarot before 9/11, not to mention the rabbit) sit rather awkwardly amongst all the realism the novel is depicting, and I was left quite bewildered and confused, thinking that I'd missed some vital clues. In the end, it left a very unsatisfactory feeling and one of "glad that's over"; pity.
on 7 May 2011
When God was a Rabbit is predominantly about Elly. Elly was born in 1968. I was born in 1966 and, for me, this made the book so more poignant. Everything Elly spoke about I remembered - Bazooka chewing gum, Wimpy restaurants and a pile of coins on top of the pools coupon waiting for the pool man to collect.
The book is in two parts - when Elly was a young girl and then again when she's in her late twenties. It shows the joy of seeing things through the eyes of a child - some of the things Sarah had written about are surely more fun when you are young. Part two is about how life can strip away the fun element at times and how just a simple memory can get you smiling again.
There were some really funny scenes (the nativity play especially). There were some really sad scenes (9/11 especially). There were lots of world events interlaced with the memories. For me, a similar age, I connected with them all.
When God was a Rabbit is also a series of short stories as we dip into the lives of the eccentric characters that Elly met during those years. As soon as I was hooked onto one character, Sarah left me hanging and moved on to the next. Sometimes she moved back and forth with the same characters, slipping effortlessly through the years. It made the book refreshing and engaging at the same time.
When God Was A Rabbit is one of Waterstone's Top 11 for 2011 and that recommendation plus its wonderful title attracted me to this very impressive debut novel.
The story is divided into two parts, 1968 and 1995, the first of which deals with the childhood of our narrator, Elly Portman, spent in Essex and Cornwall and the latter concerns events in Elly's life as an adult, mostly in London and New York. Family relationships are a strong focus for the author, especially the bond between Elly and her older brother, Joe who is at pains to "fit in" with his peers. The Portmans are not exactly your typical middle-class family as is clearly demonstrated when they embark on their Cornish adventure, opening a rather unconventional B+B which attracts some idiosyncratic characters. Moving to Cornwall means an end to Elly's close relationship with her best friend Jenny Penny but this bond is renewed in the second half of the book.
You've probably gathered by now that this is a very "busy" novel, filled to the brim with big themes such as love in its many shapes and forms, bereavement, family relationships and identity. It's a credit to Sarah Winman's writing that the story remains fluid, whimsical and almost magical even when exploring the darker side of humanity. Yes, the characters are quirky but they are fully rounded, believable and extremely engaging. There are moments of wonderful comedy, especially the Jubilee Street Party and the school nativity play, but these are balanced by bleaker episodes such as those dealing with domestic and sexual abuse and the aftermath of 9/11.
From the opening lines, you are drawn into Elly's world and you're immersed in the ebb and flow of family life. When God Was A Rabbit is an excellent first novel and one which will hopefully resonate with many readers.
When I first saw this book I was put off by the title. It was then chosen as a monthly read for my book group and some members have chosen not to read it bcause of the use of God as the name for a rabbit. It was also banned in the UAE when it was first released but has since been passed.
There are passages that could be taken badly - for instance, Elly asks her Sunday school teacher if Jesus could have been a 'mistake'. But this also illustrates the slightly irreverent feel of the book's humour - perhaps the title gave fair warning.
The book is quite episodic in style, skipping from one memorable event to the next in the life of Eleanor Maud, a young girl from a loving family, who befriends Jenny Penny. Jenny is from a less conventional family and is quite an eye opener for Elly, but by the same token, Jenny envies Elly her stable family life.
I thought the characters were well drawn, Elly, her brother and Jenny Penny, particularly.
The first half of the book was definitely stronger than the second, where events became a bit unbeievable and their solutions even more so....
For me, it was an easy, enjoyable read, I will be very interested to see how it is received by my book group.
on 28 June 2011
I really lost interest in the second half of the book. I thought the first part covering childhood was so perceptively written and made me feel very nostalgic about certain memories from my own childhood. I couldn't put the book down, and little phrases and ways of putting things was just spot on. But unfortunately, the part dealing with adult life, and the events of 9/11 in particular (which I was not expecting)could not keep me interested and I skimmed and scanned to the end. Shame really.
on 20 September 2011
Sarah Winman has thought of a clever quirky title for her novel but failed to follow through on content.
She seems to be under the impression that her characters are magical and unusual but they are really not all that special. And why so many gay characters I wonder? I've nothing against this but there's her brother and his friend, her aunt, and Arthur their lodger. Even her mother is a closet lesbian!
Her writing style is a bit heavy handed, as if she's trying much too hard and the voice of Elly, both as child and young woman doesn't come across as natural. She uses some very strange descriptions too. Here are some of my 'favourites':
.......'the gulls were singing' - I've yet to hear this phenomena - they're usually screeching their heads off!
.......'except for the staggered inprints of a lone chaffinch in search of life' - the child must be very well up on wildlife identification.
.......'the red and white signal marker raised its sluggish head ' - better get the rail engineers onto this one.
.......'eggs which had cracked and spewed their viscous fluids into patterns of white trailing innards around the pan'. - this from a child waiting for her tea to cook!
.......'watching the meat market open up like some giant nocturnal bloom' - just bizarre! (Elly's flat overlooks Smithfield market).
I struggled on to the end as I hate not finishing a book, hoping that the story might redeem itself, but unfortunately it didn't and I skip-read the last few chapters. My overall impression is that most of it was quite boring and irritating. I felt like saying - for goodness sakes get on with it, especially the conversations. I hated the I said, she said format spaced out over the page. When I first came across it I thought the characters were going to say something profound or amusing but most of it was either banal or boring - even poor old god the rabbit! I for one won't be hanging on in there waiting for her next book!