Hodder & Stoughton, 2 July 2020
Available as: HB, 306pp, e
Read as: PB advance copy
I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance copy of Jasper Fforde's new novel, The Constant Rabbit, to consider for review.
A new Jasper Fforde novel is always an Event and I was very pleased to have a chance to read this one ahead of time. It's a stand-alone book, set in an alternate present very like our own - a present suffering from many of the same problems as we do, in particular a resentment at difference. Fforde has personified this in the national response to anthropomorphised rabbits. Some fifty years before the events of the novel, an Event gave a small number of rabbits human traits, including size, the ability to speak and vaguely human physiology. Rabbits doing what rabbits do, there is now a large population of them, drawn from three distinct strains of rabbit: lab, pet, and wild. The nature of the Event is never precisely explained, although its purpose is discussed several times and in a self-referential moment is described as possibly being satirical:
"'It's further evidence of satire being the engine of the Event,' said Connie, 'although if that's true, we're not sure for whose benefit.'
'Certainly not humans', said Finkle, since satire is meant to highlight faults in a humorous way to achieve betterment, and if anything, the presence of rabbits has actually made humans worse.'"
Anyway, humanity being what humanity is, there is a lot of resentment in some quarters at the rabbits and wild talk of a "litter bomb", an explosion of breeding that will overwhelm the island. Anti-rabbit laws have been passed at the behest of the powerful "UK Anti-Rabbit Party" (UKARP) and its leader Mr Nigel Smethwick, and persecution is stirring. Rabbits have even been "jugged" by the goons of Two Legs Good, a gammony sort of direct action movement, and the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce (RabCoT) established to police where rabbits can live and what they can do.
It's against this background that our protagonist, Peter Knox, and his daughter Pippa, see a family of rabbits - actress Connie (the inspiration behind the rabbit in the Cadbury's Caramel ads), her husband, war hero Doc and their children Bobby and Kent - arrive at the vacant house next door. Much Hemlock is a quiet, inward looking Middle English village where the most exciting things that ever happen are Speed Librarianing and the annual Spick and Span contest. It's also, naturally, a bastion of anti-rabbit prejudice so the rabbits aren't welcome, and Peter is approached to offer them money to leave - with an unspoken threat that if they won't, 2LG may step in. For Peter it's a complication too many as he actually works undercover for RabCoT as a spotter (most humans can't tell one rabbit from another, but Peter is the rare exception). The pressure from his neighbours puts him in an awkward position personally (he has nothing against rabbits) and professionally (it may blow his cover: spotters, once outed, have been targets for rabbit sympathisers).
Fforde develops the central concept well, giving the rabbits a well-realised, if baroque, culture focussed on adultery, duelling and hallucinogenic carrots with their own religion and prophet (the "Bunty") and integrating events closely with actual history. The background of discriminatory law, unequal wages and exploitation is also consistent and convincing with a sinister plan to relocate the rabbit population to a "MegaWarren" complete with barbed wire fence, workshops and its own rail spur. The story that then reveals itself to us is essentially a thriller, with the rabbits menaced by various nasties (but with plans for resistance of their own) and Peter caught between his job and pressure from his neighbours on the one hand and his guilt and what's going on - and desire for Mrs Connie Rabbit (an old friend) on the other.
It's all very well done, and has the characteristic Fforde humour and sense of the bizarre. I don't know of any other writer who is as good at making the frankly incongruous seem plausible. Perhaps it's the footnotes or the the way that everything which isn't incongruous is so, well, naturalistic. In the case of this book, all of that gets an extra dose of credibility as a poke at the attitudes behind Brexit (with the odd sideswipe at other modern villains such as Donald Trump). All very entertaining.
And yet. The concept did make me uneasy at times. Perhaps it's the idea of satirising racial prejudice, prejudice against people - for surely that's what this is - by setting up a society of animals, albeit talking, thinking animals, as the victims of discrimination. And the associations the MegaWarren conjures up...
I found myself wondering whether the whole concept actually helped make a point about prejudice and the way that a minority can be persecuted, or whether it actually got in the way of that point?
Maybe it's the timing, which couldn't have been foreseen - a summer of Black Lives Matter protests making the same point in a much more vivid and compelling way than any fiction, however satirical, could achieve and possibly making a treatment like this seem as though it's trivialising the issue which I'm sure isn't the intention?
Perhaps I am overthinking. The Constant Rabbit is, if nothing else, thought provoking. And it is firmly engaged with contemporary life. It's often funny, contains a number of well-spun mystery threads, and the ending was for me genuinely poignant. In addition to all that the book does something with one character which almost literally took my breath away. I can't tell you much about it because this is one occasion when knowing what's going will absolutely ruin the point but if you read the book, you will realise gradually that there are things you're not being told... directly. And when you do you'll agree, I hope, that you didn't need to be and that the story and the characters actually work better without. It's very impressive both for how Fforde does what he does and for the fact that he does it.
But I'm babbling now. You'll have to read the book for yourself for this to make any sense, I'm saying no more.
For more information about The Constant Rabbit, see the publisher's website here.