When God was a Rabbit is the story of Eleanor Maud Portman (known as Elly) and is divided into two parts. In the first part, Elly tells us about her childhood growing up in England in the 1970s and introduces us to some of the important people in her life, including her older brother, Joe, her best friend, Jenny Penny – and a pet rabbit called God. We then jump forward fifteen years and rejoin Elly as an adult in the 1990s. Over the years the family experience more than their fair share of dramas and disasters, though there are some good times too. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens to them, but the Portmans’ lives are affected by murder, illness, kidnapping, child abuse and terrorism, to name just a few of the tragic events covered in the book.
I enjoyed When God was a Rabbit but I did think it had a few flaws. I often complain that books are too slow for me but if anything, the pace of this one was too fast. I felt that some of the things that happened to Elly and her family deserved to be explored in more depth, but instead the story moved quickly on to a new topic and a new tragedy – it was hard to believe that so many things could possibly happen to one family. I can appreciate that this is fiction and doesn’t have to be realistic, but I was still overwhelmed by the sheer amount of issues the book touches on.
I’m younger than Elly but a lot of the things from her childhood felt familiar to me too. I think for people of a certain age (especially those born around the time Elly was, in 1968) this is a book that could be enjoyed almost as much for the nostalgia and the memories as for the plot. Elly’s personal story is set against a backdrop of historical events including the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, John Lennon’s death in 1980 and the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. These events and others all affected Elly, either directly or indirectly, and again this is where I felt Sarah Winman was trying to pack too much into one novel.
I don’t want to sound too negative though, because I really was impressed by When God was a Rabbit. I loved the first half of the book and although the second half didn’t have the same feel of magic and innocence, I still found it compelling. I wanted to read on and find out what had happened in the intervening years and how the story would end for Elly, Joe, Jenny Penny and the others. Despite the whimsical title and cover, this book deals with some heavy themes and beneath the charm and humour there’s also a lot of sadness and poignancy. I often had tears in my eyes while I was reading but there were an equal number of scenes that made me smile (especially the school nativity play!). And although I had mixed feelings about this book, I thought the good points outweighed the bad. I would advise you to try it for yourself and see what you think!