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May 17, 2011

Book Notes - Sarah Winman ("When God Was a Rabbit")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Spanning four decades, When God Was a Rabbit is as ambitious a debut novel as I have read in a while. Sarah Winman tells Elly Portman's story from two vantage points, her childhood in 1968 and her adult life in 1995. Beautifully written and filled with characters everyone can relate to and empathize with, this coming-of-age story is unforgettable.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Despite the gravity of events, Winman pulls a good number of rabbits from her hat in a picaresque coming-of-age tale where characters disappear then shockingly reappear. This affecting and original debut is recommended."


In her own words, here is Sarah Winman's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit:


A homage to family. A love story between a brother and sister. The story of best friendship. Starting again. All are a true appraisal of my book. Although not autobiographical, I wanted this book to have the feel of a memoir, textured by real moments and real places of my childhood. It is narrated by Elly, who we meet in 1968 at the point of birth, and we follow her journey through the confusion, joy, and magical moments of childhood, where secrets are forged and rabbits speak. The first part of the book is set in Essex and Cornwall in the late 60's and 70's, and consequently presented a myriad of choices musically: Soul, rock, folk, big-band songsters, punk – all sit side by side in a decade of musical eclecticism.

The second half of the book opens just after Elly's twenty-seventh birthday. Growing into adulthood has been difficult, and the consequences of childhood secrets have impinged on her life. Set between Cornwall and New York, the mood is darker, people have experienced loss. The characters have ghosts. The music reflects this.


"What's Going on" – Marvin Gaye

This is a classic - early 70's soul with a politically conscious message. The beauty and spirituality of Gaye's voice is breathtaking and I chose it very early on in my book, not only to highlight the violence of the time, but also to show a family's confusion around unexpected loss and its consequence. Violence – and therefore the senselessness of violence – is quite a strong theme throughout the book, and I have presented particular moments of violence - political, social, and domestic - as a backdrop to the innocence of a family rolling like ragged tumbleweed through a suburban landscape, gentle, loving and unaware.


"Ooh Child" – Nina Simone

Central to the book is the best friendship between Elly and Jenny Penny. They are the most unusual of friends, opposite yet complementing. And yet their lives run unknowingly and heartbreakingly parallel to each other. This song is an anthem to messed-up childhood – a call to arms, to remind young hearts that 'things are gonna get easier.' Even more poignant sung by the illustrious Nina Simone.


"Can't Smile Without You" - Barry Manilow, "Easy Thing to Do" – Shirley Bassey, and "Yesterday Once More" – The Carpenters

I have grouped these icons together because their songs were the songs of my childhood, and consequently feature within the book as texture and mood of the time.

The 1970's was the age of the Dinner and Dance. Bedrooms were misted with the scents of Rive Gauche, Denim aftershave and Elnett hairspray. Lips were painted coral; the male form was draped in velvet dinner jackets. This was an occasion, the something special of my parents' world. And on their return, tipsy and raffish, with friends in tow, I watched my parents undergo a radical metamorphosis as needle met vinyl. Barry, Shirley, Karen and Richard held the key to the closed world of emotions in the suburbs. Once opened, the genie would not go back into the bottle. Once the song of heart has been tasted, everything else tastes sour...

"Can't Smile Without You" – from the opening bars, whistled to perfection, you know you're in for a treat. In a car, this is the perfect sing-a-long song, because it is great to be the ‘echo', which I frequently am. Easy Thing to Do – The character Ginger's favourite song. My favourite song. "Yesterday Once More" – Classic Carpenters: The poignancy of looking back on youth, on memory. The other day, I was sitting in the famous Pellicci's cafe on Bethnal Green Road with my school friend Stacia and we were talking about the past. Barry was mentioned, and this simple forename gave instant and familiar access to another world. And the world was good.


"Bohemian Rhapsody" – Queen

A kid's delight! Rock music and opera. Everyone thought they knew the words. No one ever did. Everyone thought that Freddie Mercury was a god. They were right. This song features in the book during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. Worth every penny.


"Imagine" – John Lennon

John Lennon was shot on 8th December 1980 - my 16th birthday. Imagine played over and over on the airways. My friends and I sat around in shock, uncomprehending at such senseless random violence. We were so innocent, really. Nothing like that had ever happened before.


"Gangsta's Paradise" – Coolio

We start part two in 1995, once more amidst violence. Elly is twenty-seven years old. Brixton has rioted and is ablaze, and this was the story she was meant to cover. The song is very much of that period, and the opening words taken from Psalm 23 highlight Elly's predicament at life: "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life, And realise there's nothing left." The religious overtone forewarns of her spiritual loss of self.


"I Who Have Nothing" – Shirley Bassey

In the book, the character Ginger sings this song, stoned, at a christening. The mere title says it all – a clue to how many feel at this point. But Shirley ends each proclamation with the breathy, "I luff you." So meaty. Top stuff.


"Maybe This Time" – Liza Minelli

In the opening of the book, we learn that Elly's brother Joe is obsessed with the songs of Kander and Ebb – one of the things that makes him ‘different' to other people – along with ‘those shoes' he secretly wears at night. When Elly goes to New York as an adult to visit her brother, it plays on the radio in their cab. A song about being lucky. About finding love, maybe. And that maybe, this time it will be different. "It's got to happen," sings Liza... But of course, as we all know, it hasn't got to happen: A haunting background to the pathos of failed adult love.


"Downtown Lights" – The Blue Nile

It's night; a cinematic moment. Three friends reunited in New York. A cab ride, lights, the feeling of belonging, the bridge, a walk along the promenade. Togetherness, memory - life is good. The perfect song.


"Dis quand reviendras-tu" - Barbara

A beautiful, moving love song about a lover not returning. It carries one of my favourite characters through the journey of her death. Best friends have told best friend tales; about Paris, about memory and all they shared. About love. Haunting and memorable. Pure Barbara, and oh so French.


"Spiegel im Spiegel" - Arvo Part

A simple, repetitive composition featuring piano and violin. It is mournful and elegiac in many ways, the violin weaving the story of loss. "Spiegel im Spiegel" means mirror in the mirror – the moment that produces an infinite number of images. For me, that is when you have lost someone and you see their face everywhere and in everything – in the landscape, in the frame of a film, in the words of a song. When everything is them. They are inescapable. So is the loss.


Sarah Winman and When God Was a Rabbit links:

video trailer for the book

Book Bliss review
TheBookbag review
BookBath review
Bookgeeks review
Books Like Breathing review
Booktopia review
Boston Book Bums review
Clover Hill Book Reviews review
Cultural Tales of Two Cities review
For Books' Sake review
Globe and Mail review
Guardian review
High Heels and Book Deals review
Katie's Book Blog review
Library Journal review
Lucybird's Book Blog review
New Zealand Herald review
Oxford Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Richard and Judy Book Club review
Spectator review
Telegraph review
What Sarah Reads review

Author on the Bookcase guest post by the author
Booktopia interview with the author
National Post guest essay by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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