Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman is a warm, funny and captivating story about growing up with close family bonds. I loved this book. It’s flawed and doesn’t stand up to close inspection but for me that doesn’t matter because of the overall sentiment and the joy that I felt while reading about a precocious child’s perspective of the world.
Meet Elly. She is growing up in Essex in the 1970s with her brother Joe, who’s 5 years older than her, and her loving but distractible parents. Her brother likes to try on their mother’s lipstick in the dark of night and cover Elly’s face with kisses. Joe and Elly have a sweet bond without jealousy or competition. They accept each other as they are and Joe is fiercely protective of Elly.
When a Hungarian Jewish man in his 80s moves in next door and Joe is off at school, Elly is drawn to the strange Jewish rituals and the eccentric Mr Golan, like a moth to a flame. He takes her seriously and lets Elly observe his rituals, while teaching her about Nazi genocide.
‘He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how,‘ I said solemnly. ‘That’s Nietzsche,’ I continued with emphasis…
‘I’d like to be Jewish,’ I pronounced, as Mr Harris dipped a large hunk of bread into the bubbling cheese.
‘We’ll talk about it in the morning’, said my father, topping up the wine glasses.
It’s not all innocent though and it’s Joe who discovers that Mr Golan has sexually abused Elly. Joe promises to find Elly a friend of her own and that Christmas she is 6 years old and he gives her a rabbit. Elly wants to name the rabbit after herself but Joe tells her it’s a male rabbit and suggests they call it God instead. Sometimes God the rabbit talks to Elly.
When Elly makes a show and tell presentation about God the rabbit to her class her teacher is scandalized by the blasphemy but a new girl in the class claps. Jenny Penny has moved into the neighborhood and soon becomes Elly’s best friend. Jenny has wild wooly hair that smells of chips and she can sometimes foretell the future. In 1982 she pulls a freshly minted coin from 1995 out of an open wound in her arm. There’s something special about Jenny Penny.
There’s a hilarious scene when Elly auditions for the school nativity play. Her aunt is a famous actress and lends Elly her dark sunglasses that she wears to premiers so that Elly can wear them to the audition. Elly doesn’t check first if she can see through the glasses. I won’t spoil it here but the book is worth reading just for the nativity scene in my opinion.
The next chapter in Elly’s life takes place in Cornwall where her eccentric parents open a B&B and scare the wits out of their first guests with their over enthusiasm. Elly learns about the cycles of the river and sea and how to handle a motor boat. She befriends an ageing fop, who is dressed in colourful, eccentric clothes and invites him to stay at the B&B. So begins a very long friendship with Arthur and his friend Ginger, a Shirley Bassey impersonator.
The only constant and calm force in Elly’s life is her brother Joe.
You see, you were the only person who knew everything. Because you were there. And you were my witness. And you made sense of the fucked-up mess I become every now and then. And I could at least look at you and think, at least he knows why I am the way I am.
Everyone needs a witness to their life. Do you have a Joe? Mine is my husband. I’ve always been an outsider and I’ve never had everyday friends until I met him and ever since he’s been my constant. He helps to keep my history and to keep me honest 😉
Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it’s a story about love in all its forms.
Have you read this lovely book? What did got think?
Here’s a couple of great reviews that you could also read