There are books that tug on the heartstrings, and then there are full-on tractor pulls. When God Was a Rabbit falls into the latter category. Sarah Winman's debut novel has been attracting a great deal of buzz lately, as tearjerkers sometimes will; add to which, her prose also has an elegiac, simple beauty, which she uses to nimbly guide her characters through 30-odd eventful years of history.
But boy, is this book rife with personal calamity. As in cancer, suicide, murder, sexual abuse (3x), domestic battery, accidental death, kidnapping, aggravated assault, bombing (2x), mutilation, stroke, amnesia and - in the Old Yeller tradition of pet misfortune - a sad incident involving a rabbit named "god" (sic).
Such is life, I guess, but under this kind of Job-like onslaught, the effect of each ghastly episode is necessarily diluted. It's a shame, since Winman really is quite a good stylist. Her book is divided into two halves, representing the childhood and later adult life of narrator Elly. The first part is best, and, given all the grave goings-on, surprisingly funny (case in point: a fabulously disastrous nativity pageant). Most interesting here is the sketch of Elly's parents, happily married people whose contentment is buttressed by a lottery win. This couple prove that the captains of happy families aren't necessarily all alike; some simply live free of affliction, while others, like these two, gaily metabolize what pain they have.
Their children aren't as lucky. Sprightly Elly morphs into a morose adult, haunted by a kept secret. Her brother Joe is also scarred by childhood loss, something that, we are told, binds him fast and forever to his sister. Sad to report, though, that this is a bond the reader perceives but doesn't really feel. Although he's Elly's hero, Joe remains opaque throughout. We can see his shining medals, just not the person they're pinned to.
More beautifully drawn is Jenny Penny, Elly's waif of a best buddy. Her descent, from badly neglected child to adult prisoner, is moving and powerful in the best way. This is where Winman really proves herself capable of making camp inside our tear ducts - and of, one hopes, writing other novels in the future.
Like David Nicholls's One Day or William Boyd's Any Human Heart, Rabbit unwinds over a long period, and its scenes are backlit by historical events and cultural references. For the most part, this is a delightful strategy. A street party during the Queen's Jubilee, grief over the deaths of John Lennon and Diana, Princess of Wales - Winman's cool snapshots remind us of how we all live deep within the rolling boil of history, even when it takes the chill form of a newspaper headline. She is less assured when she grafts details from the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III onto one of her characters, or when she places others in the epicentre of New York on 9/11. In these cases, it feels like she's hitching a ride on unique tragedies experienced by actual people, in a strenuous effort to break our hearts.
In any case, misery is not what has got the literati abuzz where Rabbit is concerned. If it were merely a bleak catalogue of bad luck, people wouldn't be talking about it the way they are. The book's appeal lies in the fact that its top note is one of hope: The cooling balm of renewal invariably follows each terrible test of human endurance (imagine Kafka taking tea with Disney, and you'll get the idea). Some horrors ring authentically here, others less so, but the message is that you can get through pretty much anything. That's trite to say, and maybe not even true. But it's remarkable how we never get tired of hearing it.
Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto journalist and critic.