When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

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!

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7 thoughts on “When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman”

  1. Great review Helen. I agree with all that you said especially about the early part of the book. Wasn’t really grabbed by the cover or the blurb but was glad that I did read it. Would certainly give Sarah Winman another go.

    1. I wouldn’t normally have picked this book up based on the cover and blurb, but I’d read so many glowing reviews I thought it might be something I would enjoy. I’m glad I decided to try it and I would also be happy to read more books by Sarah Winman.

    1. It just seemed too much to have one family having so many terrible things happening to them. It wasn’t realistic at all, but I did still enjoy the book overall.

  2. Just found your blog after finishing the book – I’d agree with much of what you’ve said especially about the pace being too fast, although like you I enjoyed the book over all. The thing which much resonated with me is the exploration of love in all its different forms – there is romance, but mostly the focus is on love between siblings/filial & friendship. I think as I’m knocking on in life (I’m not much younger than Elly) I’m coming to understand that this thing we call ‘love’ is more far reaching than I ever realised when I was younger.

    I also liked the concept of the rabbit ‘talking’ & what the author calls ‘magic and make-believe’, it certainly reminded me of my own childhood, although it didn’t always sit too easily in the second half of the book & seemed silly at times.

    Ultimately the final accolade is that I read the book in a few days which says it all really.

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