Last month I was lucky enough to get to read ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman with that most generous of book bloggers, litlove from ‘Tales from the Reading Room’. Based on an ordinary seeming family, the novel follows Elly, her brother Joe and the rest of their family, as they get on with the business of living. Elly gets a pet rabbit and makes a best friend called Jenny Penny. Her brother finds joy in rugby and falls in love with boy named Charlie. Their father and mother are happy together, even though their father is weighed down by some heavy guilt that follows him from the past. They form sturdy familial bonds and at yet spend plenty of time defining themselves as separate people. It all sounds like the normal stuff of novels centred on the important events of a domestic environment.
So, what if I told you that Elly’s rabbit is named God who talks to her? Suddenly we’re in the land of magical realism, something that litlove and I talked a lot about in the e-mails we exchanged as we went along.
I’ve never explored the theory behind magical realism and sometimes feel like it sits in a funny kind of opposition to the ‘rules’ of other fantasy writing. Most fantasy novels contain a set of internally logical rules set up by the author that govern how magic works. If the author wants to overcome limitations imposed by those rules they must find logical ways to do so. Any part of a fantasy novel that amounts to ‘By the way, this thing that I have never mentioned before means that magic works in this convenient, plot facilitating way’ is generally given a suspicious side eye, with good reason, illogical circumvention of the rules undermines reader confidence in the fantasy land they’re being asked to believe in and the emotional reality of a story.
To me, magical realism seems to be made out of the kind of hand wavy supernatural that is unacceptable in the fantasy genre. ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ certainly includes convenient fortuitous events a plenty, along with unexplained magic. One day Elly’s family wins the football pools, which makes them wildly rich and saves her father from a total breakdown. Jenny Penny shows Elly she can pull fifty pence pieces out of her arm. A rabbit appears just when everyone needs a symbol of hope. Still I felt like it would be hugely arrogant to write off magical realism, just because it’s concept of fantasy seemed a little woolly to me. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the context to understand how it worked and I wanted to understand how litlove was interpreting the nebulous strain of unexplained magic that ran through ‘God Was a Rabbit’, so I asked:
bookgazing: ‘…Are you thinking that we're being presented with a childs eye view of the world and the occasional magical happenings aren't really taking place/take on a different appearance for adults? Or do you think this is a more straight forward piece of magical realism that wants the reader to buy into the reality of the magical stuff? The fifty pence piece moment has me wondering, because as an adult reader I automatically think she's self harming' and the author is obscuring this from us through Eli lack of understanding. But it's a coin from the future...
And are you just going with the flow with the sort of unbelievable bits of the plot like the football pools win? I don't feel inclined to analyse this novel through expectations of realism at all for some reason.’
litlove: ‘The talking rabbit I was inclined to put down as a child's-eye-view. But the 50 pence piece from the arm is on another level altogether (and yukky). I found myself examining my arm and wondering if it were even possible. I completely agree that it tends to send out messages of self-harm, even if it isn't supposed to be literal, the image domain it comes from seems to make that implication. Magic realism used (in the good old days) to be about alternative kinds of power, arising from folklore and magic, that were the preserve of suppressed, indigenous people. It began as a very political tool, rewriting history from the perspective of the oppressed. So in a sense children make good vehicles for magic realism as they have no actual power, but often believe very strongly in animistic powers, or forms of magical thinking.’
At this point in the conversation I was enjoying the book, but unsure how to read much of it, which is why litlove’s explanation of magical realism was so helpful. The idea that Elly, a child who has a lot of her power and voice stripped from her by an adult at the beginning of the book and Jenny Penny, who is a pretty powerless little girl (although we don’t find out the extent of her childhood powerlessness until the end of the book) were both being given power by the author, seemed in theory to fit with the tradition of magical realism.
One thing I like about book blogging – the chance to pick up bits of knowledge from smart people. I was given a glimpse of what magical realism was all about and suddenly it all seemed to make a lot more sense. And yet, as litlove said, and yet... Despite the fact that both Elly and Jenny Penny are children who have had their power taken away from them it’s hard to see how the magical realism in this novel, gives the girls their power back:
litlove: ‘I can't make that sit happily with the narrative, for no real logical reason, other than the 50p thing doesn't feel powerful, it just feels messed up (at least, to me). The rest of the set piece events - like winning the lottery - seem more derived from farce, along the lines of Voltaire's Candide, where all these mad things just happen and the cast of characters struggle along with them as best they can.
And it made me think that the magic realism parts are particularly there to bridge the gaps. I hope I'm not giving away too much if I say that there is a happy ending which resolves a lot of difficulties. Looking back over the story, it seemed to me that when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.’
As the book progressed I found myself feeling ever more strongly that the magical realism element of the book was working as litlove said and was giving some hope to the characters and reader. At the same time some other things about the book felt kind of forced.
bookgazing: ‘I finished 'God Was a Rabbit' yesterday and have mixed reactions to different bits of the book, much like you. I have to say that although I could feel some connection with the emotions of the characters and a lot more connection during the second part, it felt like a book that relied heavily on the hand wavy method of story telling. The emotion was strong, but the technique was not. Terribly convenient things happened at convenient times…which for me could push the magical realism into tweeness. Yet I was fine with the rabbit reappearing at convenient times and love your idea that 'when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.' so there must be more to my reaction, but I can't quite fathom it yet.’
I spent time enjoying the relationships between characters. I liked that Winman has included several different types of relationships (ploy amorous emotional love, friendship between old and young) and sexualities (two gay characters and one lesbian, none of whom die) in a way that emphasised how easy growing up with non-traditional people can be. The gaps in Winman’s narrative reasoning allowed me the space and time to interact with the text. However, there was no getting away from the fact that at times ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ confused me.
It seemed to me that as litlove and I talked we kept getting drawn back to some kind of central disconnect that the mixture of magical realism and the accumulation of happy accidents. A family friend who is blind has his sight returned to him when a coconut (the object a psychic predicted would kill him) is thrown at his head. Elly’s brother loses his memory only to have it return just as his sister has stormed off, after giving up hope. Something did not feel emotionally real in these events and I resented it. Ever cynical me said:
bookgazing: ‘I don't want to seem like I'm the kind of reader who thinks a happy ending is a cop out, but I do think some books about some subjects require characters to be put through the wringer. The characters here got off really easily, even though they were involved in some terrible events and for a while seemed to be about to go off the edge. I wasn't so bothered by Charlie coming home safely from his kidnapping and managing to live a normal life, but the point where her brother’s memory came back really rubbed me wrong….the return of memory in this book feels dreadfully perfect. Just when she begins to give up on him forever, he redeems himself under the effect of a good, stern talking to! It felt like Winman pulled back from the brink of the real tragedy of memory loss and the real way people manage to rebuild too soon to conjure something true. She's so close...but, no, it's too scary, so she pulls her novel back.
and litlove followed up by saying that
litlove: ‘I think what feels a bit odd is that we begin with this stream of disasters (with the occasional triumph) that look completely arbitrary and random. Well, okay, if that's the representation of choice of destiny, so be it. But then that seems to be interwoven with another strand of super-convenient events that have the contrived artificiality of the most plotted fictions. I think it makes it hard to know how to read what happens.
The novel is definitely trying to trigger the reader's sense of poignancy (and that may be a problem - it overdoes it a bit, like poking a bruise to see if it still hurts, but not letting up until it's numb), but I think we have to be won over either by the character (which is a possibility here, there are some endearing characters) or by the sense of truth in the unfolding of the plot. I have this huge admiration for novels that make me feel, yes, that is exactly what it would be like, that is just how it would happen. Now that's not the kind of novel we're dealing with I don't think, although all the quotes seem to want to push for the emotional veracity of the story. But add that to magic realism and swirl it around a bit and you've got a funny old cocktail. I think that as I look back on the book now, I feel that it mixed things together that shouldn't really go together. So you had good bits and not so good bits.’
That is pretty much how I ended up feeling about ‘When God Was a Rabbit’. Kind of frustrated happy if that’s a thing. It was lovely to see everything work out so well, but do I ever wish it could have worked out just as well and felt more emotionally real.
It was an absolute treat to get to discuss a book in detail with litlove as she was forming her initial impressions. It was also so much fun to talk about other things. One of the things I like best about the book bloggers I meet is how happy they are to talk about all kinds of things, how books lead on to other subjects and how at the same time that never distracts from the books at hand. We could easily have run away with ourselves and only talked about the Rigsby/ Van Pelt ship in The Mentalist (alright maybe I could have run away with myself and gone on about tv, while she politely replied) or we could have been strict and kept just to bookish questions. Instead we talked about a whole bunch of things including the book and I feel like I got my own private time with the whole of the personality I see appearing every week on her blog. It was such a lovely experience and one I hope we’ll get to repeat again.
You can hear what litlove thought of the book at 'Tales from the Reading Room'.