Archive for January, 2012

Touching – or trite? ‘Rabbit’ readers hop through the hype

“The most amusing and emotionally satisfying work of rabbit deism to come down the pike in a very long time” – Henry Alford, The New York Times.
It certainly has been hard to avoid in terms of literary coverage and hype. So Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit looked like a promising choice to start off the new reading year. Most of us found it very easy to read and got through it very quickly, but this being the Berwick group of very discerning readers, that was not enough to satisfy. And – publishers take note – a number of us feel deeply patronised by novels that appear to be targeted directly at book groups, especially the editions with lists of potential questions and discussion points in the back. Do not assume that we all need this kind of direction!
Maisie sent her comments by e-mail: “Overall I enjoyed the book, although it took me a while to ‘get into it’ – I think it was the quirky writing style that caught me off guard! This book is principally about family, friendship and love plus the importance of childhood memories in adult life – so is this a novel about who/what we are?
“The ‘girly’ friendship/relationship between Elly and Jenny Penny[always thought of her as Henny Penny!] was well drawn. As is the relationship between Joe and Elly.
I’m not sure if there’s a strong enough link between the two parts. The Joe/Elly connection is maintained tho’ their roles seem reversed when it comes to ‘looking out’ for one another. The days surrounding 9/11 are sensitively touched on and I found the issues concerning Joe and his disappearance very emotional. Sadly for me the fresh lively Elly/Jenny Penny connection was cut adrift and I found it difficult to understand why. Their childhood days were for the most part full of fun and magic. What were the author’s reasons for sending JP to jail?

“Elly’s family are very open-hearted and embrace a number of idiosyncratic characters, Nancy, Ginger and Arthur who I really warmed to. The story has a good pace to it, the style fresh and quirky set against a backdrop of global events. I wonder if perhaps there isn’t a little too much going on.”

Anne R also sent her comments via e-mail but was still reading the book and was not “gripped” by it: “I grew up in Essex in the 60s and 70s but the Essex evoked here doesn’t sound very familiar to me.”
Margaret found some positive aspects to the novel, such as the good period detail about Elly’s childhood. But she could not decide whether the work was intended to be serious or amusing, as it had elements of both. She felt the Jenny Penny story merited a novel on its own. She disliked the references to celebrity culture, and found the poetic language “a bit much,” although she wondered whether the aunt’s philosophising was meant to make us laugh. Given that this is Winman’s debut novel she wonders whether reviewers have spotted the potential for the author to mature.
Janet had written a list of likes and dislikes. On the positive side, she enjoyed the linking of Elly’s life with major events, the childhood details such as eating the last teacake or watching The Generation Game, the interchanges between Elly and her brother and the black humour, particularly during the nativity play. What she did not like included the lack of explanation for Jenny’s fifty pence trick, Jenny’s absence for much of the novel, so that the reader lacked empathy with her by the end, the “too aware” child’s voice, and the writerly language. She also felt that Elly’s response to her abuse was not well-drawn and that she was, generally, a hazy character.
Janet also found it a cliché that Jenny ended up in prison – that for her was a “boring” treatment and it would have been more interesting if, for example, Elly was the one who ended up in prison. One word that crops up in many of the reviews is “whimsy,” and that for Janet felt apt.
Many of us felt that the second half of the book was much less engaging than the first, perhaps because Elly did not really seem to grow up or develop as a character. New member Josie wondered whether the abuse was real or imagined and although she read the first half easily, found the second half confusing. Anne L could not get into the book well and found the narrative device of the abuse rather too stereotypical.
There were some fans of the novel. Martin “absolutely loved it” and said he felt able to allow the author to take him into her world and experience it as she saw it. Although he found the fact that some parts of it were not fully resolved unsatisfactory, he now feels he could read it again. Rose too enjoyed it, particularly the humour and found herself laughing aloud during some of it, particularly the nativity scene. “I felt I was stepping back into my own childhood with references such as the Wimpy Bar.” On the other hand, she felt the ending tied things up too neatly, rather like a child’s story. Helen enjoyed reading the novel, although she found the abuse storyline “a fashionable subject, rather gratuitous, that didn’t really add to the story.” But she cared about the main characters and loved the humour. It reminded her of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
Finally Paula also enjoyed it on the whole, although she didn’t like the nativity scene, finding it “overdone,” and also felt the author’s style of ending chapters with a little saying became an irritation. Like many of us, she had concerns about the inclusion of 9-11 as a plot device, as it is becoming somewhat over-used and trite.
For me, although I began by enjoying the book, it felt too derivative of one of my personal favourites, Barbara Trapido’s Temples of Delight, which I feel does the whole “eccentric friend, disappears, to be re-found in tragic circumstances” storyline in much more depth.
Finally we had a chat about what we’d all read over Christmas and I am awed by what prolific readers some members are. Paula read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and two Kate Atkinson crime novels. Margaret recommends Conor Fitzgerald’s The Dogs of Rome. Rose read Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. Helen read Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing, David Mitchell’s One Day and Maggie O’Farrell’s After you’d Gone. Janet recommends Mark Kermode’s (non-fiction) The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. Anne L read some Kathy Reichs, while Martin picked up the last Harry Potter novel in a charity shop but “wished he hadn’t bothered” and recommends a biography of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He also got through several Ann Cleeves and Kate Atkinson novels!
Next month, as well as reading the intriguing Alone in Berlin, we thought we might do something to mark Charles Dickens’ birthday. Any ideas welcome!
Next month: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Tuesday 7th February, 6.30pm, Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed.

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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