Pity the poor publisher. Every months hundreds – thousands – of new books hit the shelves, and sure as eggs, about eighty per cent of them are doomed to fail. What keeps everyone in the industry going however, is the hope that they have enough of the twenty-percenters to carry them through. And when it comes to fiction debuts, it is an even greater game of brinksmanship.
At the London Book Fair last April, the big money was on Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, which is publishing in Australia and the UK in April 2011. Rights have been snaffled up around the world.
The book was presented to me a couple of months ago as the “it” book for the first half of next year. It came to me as “a little piece of heaven”, “a rare and moving novel about the power of families and friendships”, “something truly unique and magical”. Hmmm.
It is hard for publishers to get attention for the next great book, to differentiate it from their last great book, especially at a time of year when booksellers are so obsessed with the upcoming Christmas season that they are completely going spare. Perhaps this is why When God Was a Rabbit had arrived in a tin, with other bits of memorabilia, all tied up with string, and a postcard from Cornwall. Attention grabbing? Yes. Could I get into the book? No.
Well, I had another shot at it a couple of days ago, after the rush of Christmas had subsided and my mind was in another space. Can I tell you, I am now hopping on the Winman bandwagon? On my second attempt, I read it in a day or two, loving every moment of it, sneaking in pages between other committments, and going back over lovely little gems of passages.
Basically we are talking a coming-of-age story in two parts, one seen through the eyes of a young English girl and the second set in New York some 20 years later. When God Was a Rabbit is a mesmerizing portrait of childhood, with very dark and quirky humour. Stripped down to its bare bones, it’s the story the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister and while its take on loss of innocence, familial bonds and eccentricity are perhaps familiar themes, Winman’s treatment of them is subtle and original.
When God Was a Rabbit is about secrets and starting over, friendship and family, triumph and tragedy, and everything in between. When I got to the end I had to immediately contact a couple of other people who had also been given proof copies, just so I could talk about it. What I particularly liked was the possibility of interpretation of events. Winman reels you in to her world and makes you work for resolution. What she does not do is manipulate you or lay it all out on a plate.
My only frustration about When God Was a Rabbit? I will be away in a couple of weeks time when Winman is coming to Australia as part of the pre-pub promotion so I won’t get to meet her.
From the publisher:
In a remarkably honest and confident voice, Sarah Winman has written the story of a memorable young heroine, Elly, and her loss of innocence-a magical portrait of growing up and the pull and power of family ties. From Essex and Cornwall to the streets of New York, from 1968 to the events of 9/11, When God Was a Rabbit follows the evolving bond of love and secrets between Elly and her brother Joe, and her increasing concern for an unusual best friend, Jenny Penny, who has secrets of her own. With its wit and humor, engaging characters whose eccentricities are adroitly and sometimes darkly drawn, and its themes of memory and identity, When God Was a Rabbit is a love letter to true friendship and fraternal love.
Funny, utterly compelling, fully of sparkle, and poignant, too, When God Was a Rabbit heralds the start of a remarkable new literary career.