I read this book over Christmas. I thought the Finnish setting and wintry backdrop might somehow be enhanced by the festive period. Boy was that wrong. Chances to sit and read for any length of time were few and far between and as books go, this one is definitely a large hot-tub full to the brim with expensive Christmas-gift bubble bath. You don’t want to be dipping in and out. You want to luxuriate in its baffling, quirky majesty.
From the town of Rabbit Back hails Laura White, an international bestselling children’s author. White has written a series of fantasy books featuring anthropomorphised animals. She is in essence the love child of JK Rowling and Kenneth Graham. She’s also not in the book very much. Twenty or so years ago, Laura White started the Rabbit Back Literature Society in order to find and nurture hopeful young writers. By young, I mean school age. To be chosen was a great honour and there were only ever to be ten members. For years there have been nine. The tenth was never discovered. The existing nine all went on to have successful literary careers of their own.
Lonely Ella Milana, a literature teacher with little remarkable about her, finds herself being invited to be the tenth member; a talent worthy of Laura White’s time and energy. Laura is initiated into the society where she discovers at its heart a curious game. Beyond that, strange things are afoot in Rabbit Back, not least of all a mysterious library copy of Dostoevsky with the ending changed.
This is a wonderful mishmash of a book, with the impossible residing next to the mundane, and fairy tales snuggled up to the kitchen sink. It is in essence a story about stories. About how they change over time, and how they depend on the reader. It’s also greatly concerned with the creative process. ‘The Game’ is a method in which members of the Rabbit Back Literature society could peel back layers one another’s psyche, probing their innermost secrets in order to gain material for novels. It’s peculiar, yet enthralling; an examination of the myriad ways one can look at something. This is particularly noticeable by the way the fledging Ella asks very factual questions, whereas the experienced novelists she’s thrown in with see the world in altogether different way, asking far more subtle and psychologically testing questions.
I’ll be honest and say I struggled with this book. It’s continual rubbing up of the surreal, real and psychological made for an uneven read. The narrative was forever shifting and I found it difficult to keep hold of a sense of story. Ironic for a novel about stories. The writing though is fabulous. Evocative words and sentences jump of the page. It’s a beautifully observed novel, but I failed much of the time to find a sense of whole. It was like a patchwork quilt of clashing colours, where the finished article is less than each individual square.
The book was a book group choice, and it was only after sitting and discussing it with friends, that I realised how much I had enjoyed it. How many little things I had absorbed without noticing. How many things I completely missed. Each member of the group brought something different they’d noticed about the novel to the table. It made for one of our best conversations yet (out of 8 years and counting). After the group discussion, I felt much more kindly towards the Rabbit Back Literature Society. It is a very accomplished novel, cleverly constructed. There are dozens of references and influences. It is indeed a patchwork, and while its colours clashed at first, there is something unique about its riotous splendour. It’s a definitely a book that would bear rereading, and in light of all the things we discussed, this is something I aim to do. Just not at Christmas.