Sally Flint

Book Review of Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit


It took me a while to get into Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit, but once I had it was well worth the read. At times it was hard to pin down what it was actually about, but I settled on it being an exploration of family life, friendship, and the inevitable passage of time. I read somewhere that it was described as a love story between a brother and sister, and I agree it is the sibling relationship that dominates the story. It navigates the complexities of their bond through shared secrets and the poignant highs and lows that life throws their way. It’s a cross between the story of two siblings, Elly and Jo growing up meshed with a coming-of-age narrative set against a real and modern historical context.

The setting provides an authentic journey through the decades, from the late 1960s to recent years, touching upon pivotal events like the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana, and the 9/11 attacks. These moments in time provide a backdrop for the personal growth and trials of the characters, illustrating how public events often intermingle with private lives. I haven’t seen this done so well before.

The writing of Sarah Winman has a rhythmic quality that is quite lyrical to read. Characters are vividly painted, though at times it seems quite random who is focused on. I guess as it is a coming-of-age story it is those who influenced the lives of Elly and Jo. Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend, has a central role; her personal story of neglect and abuse could easily have been a book in its own right.

Unexpectedly, the novel is humorous, and this balances the more sinister themes lurking beneath the surface. This is exemplified by the titular rabbit, named God, whose ‘conversations’ with Elly offer bittersweet humour that manages to soften the harsher realities the characters face. It’s in these moments that we delve deep into Elly’s psyche, both during her youth and adulthood, as she grapples with the complexities of the world.

The book is forthright and adept in its portrayal of gay characters. I disagree with criticisms made against the book that it veers towards stereotype.

Overall, When God Was a Rabbit is a novel that captures the essence of family, friendship, and time and all the different components do come together as a compelling story. Having read When God Was a Rabbit, I shall go on to read more of Sarah Winman’s titles.


Book Club Questions On Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit

  1.  How would you feel if a family member in When God Was a Rabbit lost their memory and you had to rebuild everything from scratch?
  2. The story of When God Was a Rabbit handles a lot of different strands, from child abuse to domestic violence to terrorism. Is this too much to handle in one book?
  3. Who was your favourite character in When God Was a Rabbit and why?
  4. Why do you think Joe in When God Was a Rabbit didn’t rekindle his love affair? Discuss.
  5. How would you sum up Sarah Winman’s writing style in When God Was a Rabbit?
  6. Discuss how you responded to Elly calling the rabbit God in When God Was a Rabbit. What is its significance?
  7. Do you hold Elly’s friend, Jenny, guilty for killing her husband in When God Was a Rabbit, or can you forgive her?
  8. When God Was a Rabbit depicts a family living in an apparently nice neighbourhood, yet a street party reveals the willingness of one of the neighbours to take advantage of Jenny’s mum. What is Winman saying here? Discuss.
  9. When God Was a Rabbit introduces Elly’s famous aunt who is in love with her mum. Explore and discuss this relationship. Why didn’t Elly’s dad mind when his wife and the aunt kissed?
  10. Have you read any other Winman books? How does When God Was a Rabbit compare?
  11. Why didn’t Jenny Penny show up to her meeting with Elly in the prison in When God Was a Rabbit?
  12. What do you think will happen next in When God Was a Rabbit?
  13. Who is the most unreliable character in When God Was a Rabbit, and why?
  14. Why did the family decide to look after the old man? What themes does this reveal in the wider novel?

Book Club Questions On When God Was a Rabbit (for if you have not read the book)

  1. When God Was a Rabbit moves between different countries – the UK and America. How do you feel about books with multiple settings?
  2. Have you read any other books which focus on what happened on 9-11? Would you like to discuss them in relation to When God Was a Rabbit?
  3. When God Was a Rabbit features Elly’s famous aunt. Do you have any claims to fame?
  4. In When God Was a Rabbit, Elly didn’t know that her parents were moving to set up a B&B. Have your parents ever surprised you with anything?
  5. In When God Was a Rabbit, Elly’s dad never really got past his remorse for defending a guilty man in court. Do you have any big regrets you’d like to share?
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