‘1968… The year Paris took to the streets. The year of the Tet offensive. The year Martin Luther King lost his life for a dream.’ The year too, that Elly Portman was born.
I can remember exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked, and I bet you can too. I can picture the Brixton riots. I remember what I was doing when Elvis Presley died (and I remember John Craven telling me about it). And I know, for the rest of my life, I will recall exactly how it felt to watch the 2013 Boston Marathon.
If we’re lucky, we witness these events from a distance. They are markers in a broader pattern of life, ones that don’t affect us directly but by which we feel the interruption of our personal story by something far bigger. If we’re unlucky, they are life-changing.
So it is with Elly in Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. Elly is the daughter of a chaotic, unusual family. ‘It often occurred to me that normal people never stayed with us’, she explains, ‘or if they did it was certainly for no longer than the one eye-opening night… Our lives had become tidal; friendships, money, business, love; nothing ever stayed the same.’
Into this colourful environment appear a cast of idiosyncratic characters. There is Arthur, the wise eccentric who knows that he’ll be killed by a falling coconut, Ginger, a red-haired larger than life Shirley Bassey impersonator, and Nancy the lesbian actress. Most of all though, there is Elly’s brother Joe with whom she shares a dark secret. There is Joe, and a rabbit called god.
Often in fiction, when real-life events appear it can feel intrusive. In Winman’s narrative however, they are a series of markers on which emotions and experiences snag. Lives flow in a series of intuitions, apparent distractions and leaps, and people drift together and apart as their experiences bob under the surface and re-emerge revealing unexpected relevance.
If this all sounds a bit abstract, it is also hilariously told. Winman deals with sexual abuse, domestic violence, murder, suicide and abduction, but this is never a depressing or aggressive book. If anything, its gentleness and humour makes these events jar starkly when they occur – and this works well.
The central – and unexpected – marker is the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Until this point, the occasional reminders that something will bob up again meaningfully later grates slightly, but here the strands pull together. It’s as if there is a ‘before’ and ‘after’, with life starting afresh on a new footing. The re-referencing of what seem to be separate events now give meaning and coherence and help bring the story full circle. Perhaps life isn’t meaningless. Perhaps there really is a pattern.
But what perhaps struck me most forcefully after the last week is that the real markers in life are not just the big events that shock us. It’s the people we love, and who love us back, and this book makes that point beautifully.
As Elly tells Joe, “You see, that’s who you are Joe… That’s the person I know, and through him is the way you’ll know me, because connected to all these things are moments, and for so many of them, I was there...” This is a moving and unusual love story that reminds us that love can be found in unexpected places and small gestures, and in spite of everything, life is indescribably good.