It’s easy to see why this intriguing novel won the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize. It explores the human condition through the lives of a family from the various points of view of its members.
Among its outstanding features are the colourful descriptions Sophie Overett sprinkles throughout:
The shutters of evening have just started lowering, bringing the black night with them. The moon hangs like a fingernail above them, faint in the dusky grey sky. It calls forth the wild screeches of lorikeets and parrots, carrying the first wisps of night on their wings.
Such arresting details flesh out the background and help set the mood for many an emotional scene. For this is a novel about emotions – specifically, the emotions of a dysfunctional Brisbane family: the Rabbits.
Delia is an arts teacher, a gifted painter and the mother of Olive, Charlie and Benjamin. She is separated from her long-time partner, Ed. Delia is not satisfied with her life and her relationships with her children are fraught. In many ways she is her own worst enemy. The novel follows her and Olive’s lives over the period of a few weeks and, in lesser detail, the lives of Charlie and of Benjamin. At times the story is told from Delia’s point of view, at times from Olive’s or one of the others.
Because this novel is so well written the reader gets drawn into the predicaments of these people as though they were close relatives. I found the Rabbit family, one and all, very irritating because they tend to be their own worst enemies and the author has made them as real to me as my cousins. As Delia tells Olive:
You’re going to fuck up in your life – if you believe nothing else I say, believe that – and you’re never going to feel like you know what’s going on, and you’re going to hurt in ways you can’t explain, that are so unique to you that sharing them will feel like giving somebody something in a different language, or passing them a knife, or both, but that’s okay. That’s just what growing up is.
It is a long-established principle that a reviewer should critique what the author has written, not what the reviewer wishes the author had written, and this reviewer has no problem with that dictum. So the fact that I don’t share the worldview of the characters in this book should not influence this review, nor does it. This is a fascinating novel with deep insights into the human condition, so much so that you long to be able to discuss their views with them.
Yet I must confess that in one respect this review transgresses. The reason it does so is that I cannot understand why some of the characters have been gifted with supernatural powers. There seems no logical reason why a novel that tells the story of real people in contemporary Brisbane needs this extra, and totally unreal, dimension. True, it doesn’t spoil the story; true, the supernatural is woven gently into the narrative; true, it is not too hard to suspend disbelief. But even so: why? I found the supernatural aspect an unnecessary distraction.
That said, in these days of COVID-propelled restrictions, a good novel is especially welcome, and this one is completely absorbing. While it deals with much unhappiness and self-doubt and thwarted expectations, it is not without a dollop of optimism. It will totally transport the reader into its world.
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Publication: 2 July 2021