It’s easy to see why this intriguing novel won the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize. It explores the human condition through the life of a family from the different perspectives of its members.
Among her standout features are the colorful descriptions Sophie Overett sprinkles throughout:
The evening shutters have just started to drop, taking the dark night with them. The moon hangs like a fingernail above them, faint in the dark gray sky. He calls the wild howls of lorikeets and parrots, carrying on their wings the first strands of the night.
Such striking details flesh out the background and help set the mood for many emotional scenes. Because this is a novel about emotions – in particular, the emotions of a dysfunctional Brisbane family: the Rabbits.
Delia is a fine arts teacher, gifted painter and mother of Olive, Charlie and Benjamin. She is estranged from her longtime partner, Ed. Delia is unhappy with her life and her relationship with her children is strained. In many ways, she is her own worst enemy. The novel follows her and Olive’s life over a period of a few weeks and, in great detail, the lives of Charlie and Benjamin. Sometimes the story is told from Delia’s point of view, sometimes from Olive’s point of view or one of the others.
Because this novel is so well written, the reader is drawn into the difficult situations of these people as if they were close relatives. I found the Rabbit family, as a whole, very irritating as they tend to be their worst enemies and the author made them as real to me as my cousins. As Delia tells Olive:
You’re gonna screw up your life – if you don’t believe anything other than I’m saying, believe this – and you’ll never feel like you know what’s going on, and you’re gonna hurt in a way that you can’t explain, who are so unique to you that sharing them will make you feel like you’re giving someone something in a different language, or handing them a knife, or both, but that’s okay . That’s exactly it, growing up.
It is a long-established principle that a reviewer should criticize what the author has written, not what the reviewer wishes the author to have written, and this reviewer has no problem with that saying. So the fact that I don’t share the worldview of the characters in this book shouldn’t influence this review, nor does it. It’s a fascinating novel with a deep insight into the human condition, so much so that you yearn to be able to discuss their views with them.
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However, I must admit that in some respect this review transgresses. The reason he does this is because I can’t understand why some of the characters were given supernatural powers. There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why a novel that tells the stories of real people in contemporary Brisbane needs that extra and utterly unreal dimension. Of course, that doesn’t spoil the story; true, the supernatural is woven gently into the story; true, it is not too difficult to suspend disbelief. But still: why? I found the supernatural aspect an unnecessary distraction.
That said, in these days of COVID-powered restrictions, a good novel is especially welcome, and this one is completely absorbing. While he deals with a lot of unhappiness, self-doubt, and thwarted expectations, it is not without a spoonful of optimism. It will totally transport the reader to his universe.
Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Pages: 336 pp
Publication date: July 2, 2021