x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sarah Winman: my family and other animals

Despite broaching difficult questions in engaging prose, the author's story of eccentric relations tries too hard to be liked, writes Hannah Forbes Black

The review copy of this first novel by the British TV actress Sarah Winman arrived adorned with faux-handwritten paeans from staff at Hodder Headline, its publisher. Headline is clearly convinced it is backing a winner, and demographic arguments alone suggest it might be right. Hardly anyone reads novels once out of their twenties, and those who do are disproportionately female. With its friendly, confiding narrator whose story tails off as she hits her late twenties, When God Was A Rabbit feels tailored to the market. And yet, even though it is almost impossible to describe this book without visualising the glossy sales campaign in which it already somehow feels embedded, it is charming, readable, and energetically written. Winman channels the childhood and adolescent awkwardness she describes into chatty, self-possessed prose that suits the milieu perfectly.

It is almost impossible to dislike a novel that wants you to like it so much. Revolving around a family who are the definition of that well-worn pairing "chaotic but loving", it reaches beyond the home to filter supernatural and geopolitical elements through a story of late-20th-century youth. "I was delivered by an off-duty nurse in my parents' bedroom on an eiderdown that had been won in a raffle," our narrator Elly declares, by way of introduction. "I slipped out effortlessly into that fabled year. The year Paris took to the streets. The year of the Tet Offensive. The year Martin Luther King lost his life for a dream."

This is nice, self-aware writing, but horribly easy to parody, with its implication that radical events are like astrological bodies, leaving indelible marks on the character. Perish the thought that the year of my own birth - the year of Reagan's inauguration, the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and the ill-fated wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana - might have set the tone for my life.

Still, the big events that this book is most interested in are largely those played out in the home. Child abuse, of course, because it's the modern equivalent of the failed love affair in the 19th-century bildungsroman, but also domestic violence and a talking rabbit: all are tackled with a determined quirkiness in just the first few pages. Later we get suicide, cancer, murder, and, yes, there it is, September 11. Underneath this teetering weight of issues is an appealing novel trying to get out, yet the laundry list of earnest subplots verges on overwhelming.

This may be why When God Was A Rabbit feels at times like a melange of various quasi-literary hits from the past two decades: hints of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife in the quasi-magic-realist details, a funny/sad kind of Anne Tyler thing going on in the family dramas, a touch of Alice Sebold. But the elements don't fit together. For example, although Elly's childhood best friend Jenny Penny has messianic skills, drawing coins out of her flesh and walking on water, the book seems to lose interest in them as it goes on, and they are simply presented as evidence of Jenny's specialness as a one-of-a-kind best friend. Of course, as book clubs will inevitably conclude, everyone is special. That's the point of this kind of mildly enjoyable homiletic narrative, in which the everyday uniqueness of people is presented through their winning eccentricities, all's well that ends well and you don't have to be mad to work here but it helps.

Despite her admirable willingness to get stuck into difficult issues, Winman too often retracts or reframes her ethical questions almost as soon as she's asked them. Her invention of a holocaust survivor who sexually abuses children initially feels like a genuine provocation, taking two opposing liberal preoccupations and smashing them together. Yet her desire to appeal to everyone overcomes her riskier instincts: no sooner has the character been exposed as a paedophile than it turns out he wasn't really in the camps after all. Complexity is put on and then wiped off again, like someone trying on a very red lipstick.

The evidence that Winman might be more invested in complexity than first appears lies mainly in her well-drawn narrator, Elly. Winman allows Elly to meander along in thrall to various bigger personalities, never emerging into the implausible self-realisation that gives the lie to other characters. She is a believable and likeable presence, and Winman handles her friendship with Jenny with respectful attention.

In fact, this is the book's real love story, making the showier affairs later on look hollow. Its strength is that so little actually happens between the two, despite a heavy-handed introduction which implies that this will be the story of how Jenny changed Elly's life. The novel is littered with epiphanies, as its genre demands, but the friendship at its heart is the opposite of epiphanic, structured rather around fear of change. Stasis can be more poignant than dramatic shifts, and harder to co-opt into Hollywood's swelling-strings, not-a-dry-eye narrative mechanisms.

How well you get on with novels like this depends partly on how enamoured you are of the brand of shared narcissism that makes families and other small groups proclaim themselves the most loving, the most zany, the most dangerous, the most whatever. If this kind of self-mythologising grates, you might not enjoy Winman's cast of kooky friends and relations. More generously, these self-declared misfits reach out to us in our own ill-fitting social roles, offering a kind of consolation. Yet no one here seems to accord with real life, from the brother whose untimely end isn't all it seems to the adopted uncle who foresees his own exotic death. Besides Elly and Jenny, everyone falls a little flat, as if Winman had wanted to write a smaller, more elegiac book about one childhood friendship but lost her nerve and threw in a bunch of sideshow extras.

When God Was A Rabbit is an easy, enjoyable, at times even moving read, and Headline will do its utmost to ensure that it does just fine. It presents life as anecdote: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but always worth retelling. The novels that matter, on the other hand, are those that want more from their readers than affection.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.