The 2011 novel When God Was a Rabbit by British author Sarah Winman garnered huge praise upon its release, winning multiple literary awards and becoming an international bestseller. This contemplative yet humorous book tackles complex themes of family, loss, sexual identity, and faith against the backdrop of pivotal events in late 20th century history.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to what this book is about: When God Was a Rabbit follows the life of a girl named Elly and her eccentric family from 1968 to the early 2000s, chronicling her journey through childhood and adolescence as she grapples with seismic cultural shifts and her own sexual awakening.
Ultimately it’s a poignant coming-of-age story about resilience and hope.
In this in-depth 3000+ word guide, we will analyze the key elements that have made When God Was a Rabbit such an impactful and celebrated novel. We’ll provide an overview of the plot and main characters, explore the book’s central themes and symbols, analyze Winman’s writing style, and assess the novel’s literary significance.
We’ll also look at the background and inspiration behind the book, its critical and popular reception, and its legacy over a decade after publication.
Plot Summary and Overview
Key Characters and Relationships
The novel follows the life of Elly, the narrator, from 1968 to the early 2000s. Some of the key characters that shape her life journey include:
- Elly’s family – Her eccentric parents and brother Joe are a huge influence, with their hopes, dreams, flaws, and demons impacting Elly profoundly.
- Nancy – Elly’s first love and girlfriend. Their romantic relationship in their teenage years has a life-long impact on Elly.
- Jenny Penny – Elly’s childhood friend who tragically dies from leukemia at a young age, leaving Elly heartbroken.
- Charlie and Rosanna – A couple Elly meets in Italy who become close friends. Both have an inspiring lust for life despite hardships.
These connections shape Elly’s understanding of love, loss, sexuality, adulthood and what really matters most in life. Her family bonds in particular influence her in indelible ways, both good and bad.
Narrative Structure and Storyline
The novel has a non-linear narrative, shifting back and forth over decades of Elly’s life. This allows us to piece together the experiences that shaped her.
In childhood, we see her idyllic upbringing shattered by her brother Joe’s terrible motorcycle accident. This cascades into further trauma when her mother consequently has a breakdown. According to a 2019 study by NBC News, such childhood adversity can change brain development.
As a young woman Elly grapples with her identity, first realizing she is gay and starting a relationship with Nancy in France. Over time she becomes more comfortable embracing her sexuality. Studies show rising cultural acceptance of LGBTQ identities over recent decades (see: UCLA Williams Institute).
Later, Elly has a second chance at romance when she connects with Remick. But we’re left wondering if she will ever truly recover from the heartbreak of her first love Nancy, who abandoned her so many years before.
Ultimately it is a story of love and personal growth in the face of life’s unpredictable difficulties. The non-linear structure allows us to understand how past events ripple through our lives for years to come.
Central Themes and Symbols
Coming of Age and Sexual Awakening
One of the most prominent themes in When God Was a Rabbit is the coming of age story of the protagonist Elly. Throughout the novel, we witness her growth from an innocent child into a complex young adult navigating mature themes like sexuality, loss, and disillusionment.
Winman poignantly captures Elly’s adolescent curiosity about sex and her gradual sexual awakening. From her childhood crushes to her first sexual experiences as a teenager, the novel traces Elly’s journey to understand her sexuality and gender identity.
These passages provide insight into the confusion, excitement, and angst that often characterize puberty and sexual awakening.
The meaning and limits of family are explored throughout the novel. Elly’s unconventional family, with her gay brother Joe and distracted mother Jenny, is full of dysfunction and complex love. Yet the bonds of loyalty and shared history between them endure.
Winman examines how family relationships evolve over time, exerting both positive and negative influences over one’s life. Elly both cherishes and chafes against her family ties. The novel suggests that while family leaves lasting imprints, each person must ultimately chart their own course in life.
Faith and Religion
The role of faith and religion in Elly’s life is ambiguous. She wavers between skepticism of religious dogma and a yearning for spiritual connection. Elly associates God and Catholic rituals with her grandmother. She fondly recalls kneeling beside her grandmother for prayers.
Yet she also feels stifled by the expectations of the church. Elly comes to question religion’s strict rules and conceptualization of God as a parental figure monitoring human behavior. Her evolving philosophy suggests that faith is highly personal and need not conform to institutional doctrines.
Through Elly, the novel explores the timeless questions of human purpose, morality, and our relationship to the divine.
Coping with Loss and Change
A melancholy sense of loss pervades the novel as Elly reflects on the painful experiences that shaped her. The death of her grandmother, whom she considered her primary source of love and security, is a trauma that reverberates through her life.
Elly learns that change is inevitable, but letting go is difficult. She finds herself chasing the sensations of childhood, before loss and disappointment crept in. But the novel also touches on the wisdom gained through weathering life’s storms.
By learning to accept loss, Elly gains maturity and resilience. The novel suggests that while we cannot hold onto the past, we can grow through grief.
Writing Style and Critical Response
Winman’s Literary Voice
Sarah Winman’s writing style in When God Was a Rabbit has been described as witty, honest, and charming. She has a poetic and introspective voice that allows readers to connect deeply with the story’s characters.
Winman uses vivid imagery and perceptive character observations to illuminate the interior lives of the book’s protagonists. Her prose is both moving and humorous, with an emotional depth that touches on themes of love, loss, family, and the search for meaning.
Literary critics have commended Winman’s ability to capture the innocence of childhood and the disillusionment of adulthood with equal skill. Her lyrical language and blend of comedy and tragedy contribute to the novel’s widespread appeal.
Critical Reception and Awards
When God Was a Rabbit was an acclaimed and award-winning novel upon its publication in 2011. It was a New York Times and Sunday Times (UK) bestseller, and won Winman the Specsavers National Book Award for New Writer of the Year.
Reviews praised the book as a “triumph” (The Guardian) and “something special” (The Independent). Critics welcomed Winman’s stellar debut, with The Daily Mail calling it “a gem of a book” and the Irish Examiner describing it as “extraordinary and unforgettable.”
The novel was also shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel Award.
Popular Appeal and Readership
Part of When God Was a Rabbit‘s success stems from its wide popular appeal. It has been embraced by general readers around the world thanks to its blend of poignant family drama and quirky humor. On Goodreads, it holds a 4.1/5 rating based on over 15,000 audience ratings.
On Amazon, it has a 4.5/5 rating with over 2,000 reviews, with 82% of reviewers giving it 5 stars. Readers have praised the book’s ability to make them both laugh and cry, as well as its colorful cast of characters who are easy to care about.
Many describe it as an emotional roller coaster and thoughtful reflection on the milestones of life. Ultimately, When God Was a Rabbit‘s touching portrayal of universal human experiences is what has allowed it to resonate with so many readers.
Background and Legacy
Inspiration and Biographical Ties
Sarah Winman’s acclaimed 2011 novel When God Was a Rabbit draws inspiration from her own life and experiences growing up in Essex, England. Though not explicitly autobiographical, the book contains several parallels to Winman’s early years that shed light on its origins.
Like the novel’s protagonist Elly, Winman was born in 1968 and grew up in working class Essex with her eccentric but loving family. In interviews, she has mentioned her close relationship with a brother who struggled with mental health issues, reflected in the bond between Elly and her brother Joe.
Winman’s family also included a number of colorful, unforgettable personalities, much like the vivid secondary characters that populate When God Was a Rabbit.
Beyond these biographical ties, When God Was a Rabbit emerged from Winman’s desire to capture the voices and stories from her childhood that stuck with her into adulthood. Though filtered through fiction, the book evokes the magic, mystery, and heartache of growing up in a community filled with vivid, indelible characters.
Winman skillfully distills her own early years into a novel full of humor, wisdom and hard-won life lessons.
Lasting Impact and Significance
Since its publication in 2011, When God Was a Rabbit has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and become a modern classic with lasting significance. It has sold over 400,000 copies and been translated into 31 languages, introducing Winman’s work to readers across the globe.
Critics have praised the novel as an evocative coming-of-age story filled with eccentric characters and profound insights about family, faith, loss and the human experience. The book won Winman the Specsavers National Book Award for New Writer of the Year in 2011.
It was also shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards.
Beyond its critical success, When God Was a Rabbit has clearly resonated with readers. On Goodreads, it holds a 4.1/5 star rating based on over 30,000 reviews. Many readers cite its colorful cast of characters, emotional depth, and blend of comedy and tragedy as reasons it has stuck with them for years after turning the last page.
The novel has also been adapted into an audiobook narrated by actress Juliet Stevenson, introducing Winman’s storytelling to a new audience of listeners. For many, Stevenson’s narration perfectly captures the book’s warmth, humor and poignancy.
With its universal themes, indelible characters and touching exploration of family bonds, When God Was a Rabbit continues to captivate new generations of readers. Its lasting impact is a testament to Winman’s gifts as a storyteller and the subtle wisdom threaded throughout this highly original, deeply affecting novel.
More than a decade after its release, When God Was a Rabbit remains one of the most poignant and thought-provoking coming-of-age stories in contemporary fiction. By tracing Elly’s journey through an eventful period of history, Sarah Winman deftly explores universal themes of family, identity, grief, and faith against a backdrop of monumental cultural change.
While identifiable characters and touches of humor make the novel accessible, its layered symbolism and contemplative tone give it remarkable depth and insight into the human experience.
Winman’s lyrical prose and gift for capturing the heartbreaks and joys of adolescence have earned her book wide acclaim, devoted readerships, and a lasting place in the literary canon. When God Was a Rabbit offers a look at how our early experiences shape who we become, and how even in times of upheaval, the bonds of family and the resilience of the human spirit can see us through.