Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman

9780755379309-1-3In 1968, “The year Paris took to the streets. The year of the Tet offensive. The year Martin Luther King lost his life for a dream,” Eleanor Maud Portman is born. Elly immediately grasps you by the hand and introduces you to the motley crew of her family. She idolises her older brother Joe, who is determined that Elly will have a friend and gives her a rabbit, which she names God.

The book is peopled by delicious characters – Shirley Bassey impersonator, Ginger; Arthur, who is certain of when he will die and how. Both are guests at the Portman guesthouse, who become members of the family. Then there is Jenny Penny, Elly’s next-door neighbour and best friend, who exudes magic and warmth.

But though the first part of this book shines with innocence, darkness impinges on the nostalgically blurred edges of this childhood. The Portman family are touched by a number of small tragedies that leave their mark on the individual members of the family. But they continue to glow, to leap off the page.

Told in two parts, the first half is a delicious evocation of an awkward childhood. Winman brings to life the world through a child’s eyes in a way that makes you dewy-eyed about your own childhood. The second part takes place when everyone has all grown up and Winman bravely uses 9/11 as a turning point of the book, creating a moment of frozen horror that exists both inside and outside of the book.

This is a story of things lost and found. How the ties forged in childhood – brothers with sisters, with best friends and first loves – can reach out and grip you in adulthood. A book about the surprising importance of memory – not just your own memories, but your place in other people’s. It is a startling accomplished debut novel that defies a neat breakdown. Winman’s grasp of character is firm and assured, her voice is strong and lyrical:

“The sound of the trunk fracturing and splintering and falling to earth was the sound his heart would have made, could it speak.”

As the blurb claims “More than anything, it’s a book about love in all its forms.” I for one can’t wait to see what Winman tackles next.



Headline Review, 2011. ISBN-10:0755379306. 352pp.

5 comments on “When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman

  1. Victoria Oldham
    September 29, 2011

    I just reviewed this on my blog as well. Such a magical book, with writing that is surpassingly beautiful. If someone wants to learn how to write, this is the book they should use to learn.

  2. Chris Harding
    September 29, 2011

    I agree – it was magical and beautifully written. I loved this book.

  3. Laura T
    September 29, 2011

    I wasn’t a fan of this book (I’ve reviewed it at, if anyone is interested in a probably-too-detailed explanation as to why) but I did enjoy reading it, and it’s interesting to hear why others thought better of it than I did…

  4. Jackie
    September 30, 2011

    Wasn’t sure what to expect from the title, and am glad you explained what it meant. This sounds like a somewhat sad & eccentric novel, which would be a draw for me. The quote in the first sentence of your review is splendid! If the rest of the book is like that, it would be a treat.
    Thanks for bringing this overlooked novel to our attention. 🙂

  5. Pingback: When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman |

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2011 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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