I like books with a lot of action. Books where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people and the pace is breakneck, so you can’t stop flipping pages until you find out what happens next. I like suspense and adventure and wonder. You can see this pretty clearly in my last four reviews. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman is not a breathless adventure story. There are no pirates, Wyveraries, murder mysteries, pageant girls or magical lands, but somehow the story is magical anyway.
Basically, this is a story about life, specifically the life of Elly, a young girl growing up in Essex, then Cornwall and eventually New York. Trying to come up with a way to summarize this book was really hard, mostly because it’s kind of about nothing while at the same time being about everything. At its core, it is a love story, but not THAT type of love story. It’s the story of love between friends, family, spouses, and life. The core relationship is that of Elly and her older brother Joe. It spans four decades of their lives and examines closely the bond between siblings, how your personal history shapes your lives and how ‘family’ can be so much more than who you’re related to by blood.
Elly’s growing up story is shaped by several key events, none of which I can really delve into lest I ruin the book for you. I want to call these events traumatic, but they’re traumatic in the quiet, unassuming way that difficult things happen, the kind of traumatic that you don’t realize has marked you until much later. As Elly deals with these things, the reader gets to watch how they shape her life and the lives of the people close to her. Elly has a fresh voice, witty and sarcastic and observant, and the way she tells the story of her life makes every moment feel important and full of wonder. The people who populate her world are fascinating and weird and delightful. But they are *real*, there is no point in this story where you have to suspend disbelief. Everyone is just like a person you could meet in real life.
What I think Winman does the best job of capturing is the simple fact that every life, even the most plain and ordinary has the potential to be extraordinary. Think about the people you know and the things you’ve done and been through. They might seem dull or unworthy of attention but try writing them down. Write about the lady you packed boxes with one year while between good jobs, who told you about growing up in the Caribbean and how she and her friends used to climb mango tree and chew tea leaves for headaches. Write about your first heartbreak or the time your best friend changed schools and became a person you didn’t recognize after. Everyone has a story worth telling, and though Elly’s story is fiction, it reads like truth and that is Winman’s greatest triumph in When God Was a Rabbit.
Writing this I struggled with articulating just what it was that makes this book so great. I’m usually pretty good at the summarizing thing, but words failed me a little on this one. I think in the end, what I really loved most about this book is that it reminded me that there is a great deal of beauty in the living of an ordinary life. Sure the average person isn’t going to hop on a sailing ship or save Fairyland, but all of life’s experiences are worth celebrating. We all experience love and loss, friendship and betrayal and all of us have something worth sharing. No life is just ordinary.