Lives less ordinary

When God Was a RabbitWhen God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you read a book that passes straight into your bloodstream, and you are hardly aware of how it happened.

When God was a Rabbit describes itself as the story of a brother and sister, “about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between…about love in all its forms”. That is a perfectly fair description as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say is anything of the quiet and kindly magic with which Sarah Winman defines her characters.

Elly, her brother Joe and her childhood friend Jenny Penny are all outsiders – not the angry and embittered kind, though, but the kind who know they are in some small way different, unique, set apart.

They, their family, and the friends who become a part of that extended family may be fictional, but they have the immediacy and honesty and vibrancy of real people, and their lives have the ring of a true story. They are flawed, passionate, muddled, baggage-laden, generous, tragic, vibrant, good, above all human. They are the people we know, the people we are, the people with whom we want to surround ourselves.

Elly and her family live through the events of the 1970s, 1990s and the early years of the new millennium – a shared experience for many readers, and one that rings true even at those points where are own memories are different. Winman has the particular gift for being able to spring a momentous event on the reader, whether historical or fictional, with all the unexpected impact of real life.

And then there is the language. Winman has the eye for observation of a small child and the pen of a poet, but combines them with the technical skill and self-control to reserve her poetic imagery for the moments that really matter, big and small. The result is that we are never inured to her description, we never lose the sense of wonder or the ability to see the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.

Read this book late at night, when the house is quiet and your defences are down. Let it work its magic. Drink in its imagery and its goodness and its sadness and its hope like a drowning man inhales the ocean. Let it into your DNA; let it enlarge and enrich your emotional vocabulary. Let it tell you that you are not alone.

CapitalCapital by John Lanchester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the late 1980s I went to an exhibition of the work of three of the great British architects of the twentieth century–Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and James Stirling. I think it was Rogers who was quoted as saying that cities exist for one reason only–as a place for people to meet. I’ve never forgotten that.

Capital is a book not so much about a city as about its people. Its epicentre is a south London street, Pepys Road–Everystreet, in all but name. Its dramatis personae are the street’s residents: the banker and his wife and children, the Pakistani family who own the corner shop, the widow living out her final years in the house where she was born, the up-and-coming football star, the immigrants both legal and illegal, the tradesmen and traffic wardens, the artists and artisans, the sons and the lovers, the dumpy and the tall. Added to this is the slightly menacing presence of the houses of Pepys Road, every one of them a tyrannical god demanding constant tribute, whose market value bestows arbitrary blessings or curses on its owner.

This is a “slice of life” novel portraying the people of Pepys Road through the course of a year, from December 2007 to November 2008–the year that saw the collapse of the merchant banks, the beginning of the credit crunch, against a backdrop of commuter journeys and low-level antisocial behaviour and the constant rumble of the threat of terrorism. All play a role in the drama of the residents of Pepys Road.

The story is told at the personal level, switching from one character to another, showing for the most part lives that intersect by accident rather than a homogeneous community. It is a story of the everyday grind rather than of heroism or achievement: most of the characters are simply getting on with their lives, some more competently or more successfully than others; only one or two of them are drawn with out-and-out contempt.

There is no single narrative thread, no grand conclusion, but by the end of the novel every character has seen some kind of resolution in his or her life. In many ways these are not characters to inspire or enthuse; one is more likely to spot an unflattering or self-destructive character trait, and check in the mirror to see that one has not developed it oneself. This makes it all the more satisfying to encounter the few surprising moments of personal strength and dignity and courage, amid the everyday successes and failures and the lives of quiet desperation.

It’s a good read, with some moments of real humour and surprise, and a good many characters whom you wish well at the end. (OK, and one you don’t…)

And what of London itself? The capital is a constant presence, perhaps the least palatable character, an unforgiving and all-devouring deity to many of its citizens. To every one of Lanchester’s characters the city has held out some lure or other–wealth, fame, security, justice, notoriety, fairness, fulfilment in all its forms. Every one of these promises is tested to the limit in the course of the book; nearly all are found wanting.

Not quite all, though. But it is telling that the characters who emerge stronger at the end, more fulfilled and better equipped to cope, are those who do not bow down and worship the golden calves of the Capital, but treat it (in Lord Rogers’ words) as a place for people to meet; those who turn their backs on London’s gaudy promises, and find what they need inside themselves and their fellow man.

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