I said that Ellis and I talked of things in the moment. I said we just existed in each other’s presence, because that’s how it felt. Often in silence. And to a child it was good silence, because nothing felt misconstrued. There was a safety to our friendship, I said. We just fit, I remember saying.
This is such a beautiful tender story about love, denial, obstacles and the interference of life itself. Ellis and Michael first became friends when they were twelve-year-old boys. What first love is more powerful than that of intense friendship? What is more sacred than finding a kindred of your own choosing? Boys too tender for their bruising fathers, for Michael it is evident he is the wrong sort of boy to his father’s thinking later in the novel when he recalls a memory of his yearning for the mother who left him, and how his father reacts to finding him cozying up to the things she left behind. Such boys were abhorrent to fathers. When Michael’s father dies, he comes to Oxford to live with his grandmother Mabel, with a suitcase full of books, fancying himself a poet he meets Ellis for the first time. A budding artist, whose father has other plans for his son’s future, Ellis shares his inner most being with Michael. Dora, Ellis’s mother, is quick to form a bond with Michael, who so badly needs to fill the space his mother left. When she becomes ill, the boys oversee her remaining days, and both make a promise about Ellis and his future, one that his father is hellbent on destroying.
Caught in intimacy while mourning the loss of his mother, Ellis’s father forces him into leaving school and taking up factory work. Without his loving mother there to defend her fragile son, to make sure he stays in school, he succumbs to defeat and his father’s bullying. Michael is always at his side, the two take a trip to France, steal time for a while and make memories that equally warm and torment them for life. I kept thinking of a famous quote by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been”. Many things might have been, and the things that happened were on borrowed time.
One moment the young men are in a sort of paradise, as close to one another as their own skin just the two of them, but then there is three when Annie enters the scene. Annie marries Ellis, but for a time they are a party of three. Nothing gets past Annie, and you can’t help but see why Ellis loved her and Michael too. Her love and sense of self was strong enough to give Ellis his private, quiet stolen moments with his best friend Michael. This is a book of hearts running over with love and compassion, while also containing the brutality of others who refuse to accept and love people for who and what they are. It stays with you after you put the book down. Both are lost in reverie throughout the years, questioning and doubting each other- loneliness a constant companion. Michael builds a life of his own, disappears from Ellis but as the story unfolds we know why. He kept a devastating secret too.
Though there is grief, there is beauty and love shining through the darkness. Loneliness can’t be escaped, and from the very beginning Winman guts you in the small quiet rebellion of Ellis’s mother and the painting she wins in a raffle, not just that she chose the prize despite her husbands wants, but the strength it gave her. It comes to mean so much, that painting. It’s a quiet novel, and the big moments all fester in the heart of the things we are denied. There is loss, but there will always be loss when love is factored in. As much as I adored Ellis and Michael, my breath catches for Annie, a truly beautiful soul.
No one guts me quite like Sarah Winman, When God Was A Rabbit broke my heart and I read it back in 2011, I never wrote a review, must remedy that. Not surprised to feel broken again.
Publication Date: May 15, 2018
Penguin Group Putnam