Sarah Winman's first novel is a story of family, friendship, love, and what can hold together lives that threaten to disintegrate. Our narrator is Elly Portman, who chronicles her life from early childhood in the 1970s; there is darkness from the start, but it's intertwined with fortune and levity. A pools win, for example, allows Alfie and Kate Portman to fulfil a dream of moving the family from Essex to Cornwall to open a B&B; but it means Elly must say goodbye to her best friend, Jenny Penny - and this not long after Elly's older brother Joe had to bid his own farewell to Charlie, the rugby friend who was becoming so much more than a friend, but then moved away to Dubai.
The way that Winman mixes light and shade in her novel is quite something; one is never far away from the other. The scene set at Elly's nativity play is hilarious, even as it tips over into tragedy. When Alfie leaves his job as a lawyer in preparation for the move to Cornwall, he ends up sitting in his car, distraught; I found the passage describing why to be one of the most powerful in the book. There's also an effective subtlety to how Winman reveals (or hints at) her characters' secrets and situations, especially in the novel's first half.
In its second half, When God Was a Rabbit jumps forward to the mid-1990s, when Elly has become a journalist, Joe has gone to live in New York, and Jenny Penny is in prison. The prose in this section loses some of its subtlety, as a consequence of Elly's more perceptive adult viewpoint; but that greater directness reflects the theme, running through this half, of life's brightness receding. Time catches up with some of the colourful secondary characters; and, whereas Elly's childhood naivety could deflect the impact of tragedy to an extent, the adult Elly has no such means of defence. She finds herself wishing she could go back to the old days (the novel's title, referring to Elly's pet rabbit, represents her childhood, a golden age even though it had its share of calamity) - but, of course, she can't.
In the world of When God Was a Rabbit, though, there is hope even when life is at its bleakest. There's a slightly heightened sense of reality about the novel - in the sheer number of bad things that come into the Portmans' lives, or Elly's imagining that her rabbit can speak - which allows Winman to stretch her plot and characters that bit further than they might otherwise go. There's also a rolling rhythm to the author's prose which makes it very engaging to read. All in all, When God Was a Rabbit is a work of considerable charm.
Follow David Hebblethwaite on Twitter: www.twitter.com/David_Heb