Chasing Rabbits: Black Rabbit Summer and Black Rabbit Hall

Long before I started this blog, I had ideas for posts about books I’ve read. And here we are three years later and I’m finally finishing this review of two books I read back-to-back in the summer of 2016: Black Rabbit Summer and Black Rabbit Hall. I wanted to do this review/comparison because I thought, What are the chances of encountering two books within a week of each other, both with black rabbit in the title, both interesting enough to make me want to read them? So I started out by writing a little compare-and-contrast, because on the surface these two books have almost no similarities, in style, voice, or content. But then I realised, the books were more alike than I’d first thought…

Black Rabbit Summer (disclaimer: I haven’t read this since 2016 so I might get some details wrong) by Kevin Brooks is set in a modern British city of unspecified location and deals with a teenage boy, his friends, and the aftermath of their last drug-hazed night together before tragedy strikes. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is set initially on manor grounds in modern England, with frequent flashbacks to an earlier period in the same location so that the two stories essentially coincide, including family drama and an unavoidable series of tragedies. One book focuses on the contemporary story of a suburban teen and his missing friend, the other on discovering the darkly tangled history of an affluent family. While the stories appear on the surface to be quite different, they are, in fact, very much alike; yes, both have an actual black rabbit as a major plot piece.

In Summer, the protagonist’s best friend and next door neighbour, a fragile kid called Ray, has a black rabbit that he talks to. In Hall, the protagonist’s younger brother, Barney, also a sensitive kid, is given a black rabbit in an attempt to cure an aversion to rabbits which started in connection to a traumatic experience. Both rabbits meet ends that start their respective owners on dangerous paths, and compel the protagonists to take some kind of action and responsibility. That only covers the similarities directly related to the black rabbits, but, wait! There’s more.

Summer and Hall share much more than just circumstances relating to the titular furry friend. The protagonist of Summer, Pete, is a teenaged boy, dragged out of the hazy laziness of his summer into the heat and confusion of a late-night carnival with friends, a last hurrah for their high-school days together before splintering off to other schools and lives. The setting of the carnival and leading up to it is like going back in time for the protagonist–memories of past times spent together overlay the current night as old feelings resurface, forbidden love beckons for experimentation, and the group is once again broken apart over the course of the evening in the same way they have broken apart before. The main protagonist of Hall, Amber, is a pre-teen/teen girl, exchanging the tightly time-locked city for her family’s isolated estate Black Rabbit Hall on the holidays, not anticipating the violent storm that will shape all holidays to come. The hall begins as a static world for the protagonist, an insulated one where clocks are items of dubious reliability and time is relative, every holiday promising to be comfortingly like the last. However, inevitable change does descend upon the hall and the protagonist is forced to meet it, grappling with the past, new (also forbidden) love, and the fracturing of her life and family as she knows it.

Both Summer and Hall have active protagonists who rise to meet the challenges facing their families and people they care about. At times the narratives exhibit a dream-like quality of alternately sharp, detailed focus and hazy impressions that transport the reader not only into the world, but into the protagonist’s perception of that world. Both Hall and Summer have at their core a search for a missing person that drives the transformation of the protagonist and revelations about other characters. Specifically, the realisation that the seeming “victims” may not be as one-dimensionally innocent as first thought.

The majority of the plot in Summer is occupied with the search for the missing person and takes on an investigatory/mystery tone throughout, in contrast to Hall wherein the search only occurs during the climax while acknowledging its ramifications both for the past and future. Summer features police, crime, drugs, and stalkers while Hall focuses on the more private nefariousness contained within a seemingly respectable blended family–grief, neglect, and oppressive control. Summer takes place over a relatively short season and is open-ended, while Hall spans over thirty years and concludes with a satisfying reunion. In Summer, the mood is heavy with heat and blinding light that greets late morning risings in the oppressively blank succession of days, bogging down the protagonist’s search for answers in a hard-to-beat resistance. In Hall, sea-spray and the cool forests on the coast of Cornwall should create a fresh atmosphere full of lightness, but balanced on either side of the crumbling hall itself, the bay becomes menacing with its tide, the forest a home to the industry of obsession.

Now I’m going to finish this book review/comparison by spending more time analyzing Black Rabbit Hall because I just re-read it recently and have more thoughts about the way the book is written. The narration of Hall does not begin with the protagonist’s point of view in chapter 1, but with that of another woman, Lorna, who comes to the hall about thirty years after the events of Amber’s story, and alternates perspectives with her. And as much as I usually dislike prologues that show a snippet of some part of the climax without actually telling you what’s going on, only to be reiterated later in the actual climax, this story did it pretty well. The prologue is from the perspective of Amber, so when the first chapter opens with a different narrative from thirty years later, the prologue actually feels like a proper prologue and not a cheap hook. Also, when the climax actually takes place, the majority of the two-ish page prologue isn’t repeated (which I’ve seen done before); instead, only a paragraph of italicized text is taken from the prologue to flow into the story continuing.

In fact, flow is one of the things I like about this book. The way the “past” (main) story interweaves with the “present” story is well done, both following natural breaks and developing concurrently so that a revelation in one is timed well with occurences in the other. The story is not artificially bifurcated by chapter–one of the present story, one of the past, etc. which some other books have, creating a choppy, disconnected feel: no sooner getting into one setting and story before the next one interrupts. Instead Hall breaks when it feels right, which may be after one chapter or several. Also, Chase smoothly deals with time jumps of weeks (or months in the case of the “past” story) to get to the meaningful events that drive the story forward, adding enough thought or recapitulation of what has passed to anchor the time-setting so the reader doesn’t get confused. By doing this, Chase has created a multi-generational family drama that doesn’t drag into the depressive incidentals but instead maintains a pace that is suspenseful and rich in relevant detail and development without being frustrating.

And about the suspense… there’s nothing quite like telling the reader what’s going to happen before it does in order to create tension. The Book Thief is probably the most prominent other book I can think of that does this–tells the reader a character is going to die before they do. You’d think this was a terrible choice on the part of the author–spoilers, ruining the surprise of the ending, and all that jazz–yet, done well, as it is in The Book Thief (and, I think, in Black Rabbit Hall as well), it can create healthy dread in the reader as they progress to the part of the story wherein this inevitable event takes place. It also creates hope, because we as readers are used to being tricked, fooled, beguiled into believing the worst, only to have a loophole bring back a beloved character or reframe seemingly disastrous events. So telling the reader up-front a character will die does not eliminate the possibility that the reader clings to some shred of denial even as they watch the trainwreck happening.

On the other hand, the narrative of Hall is leery of telling the reader what to think about characters. Instead, the narrative is framed from the perspective of one character (Amber), so we know what she thinks of others and to a certain extent what she observes can be trusted. But yet, parts of the same narrative are differently expressed through the limited and more objective filter of Lorna thirty years later hearing the story from the lips of someone who may be considered Amber’s nemesis throughout the majority of the story. The result is that the characters cannot remain caricatures where the “good” character is all good and the “bad” inexplicably, irredeemably bad. Instead, every character is shown to be coloured by their relationships with others, which are necessarily affected by their personalities, predispositions, and respective positions. To put the finishing touch on the instability surrounding the actual nature of the characters, an epilogue presents an entirely new first person narrative revealing certain facts about the inciting incident that undermines natural assumptions made by the reader, and even the main character.

Now I know I said the way Hall deals with the search is more curtailed than in Summer; however, that’s not entirely true. Yes, the actual, main search for a missing person is quite short, but there are other searches in Black Rabbit Hall that span the entire story. Lorna comes to the hall on a search for a childhood which was spent with her now-deceased mother, eventually learning of a search that Amber has since been on. When the two stories converge, past and present are united. Both Black Rabbit Summer and Black Rabbit Hall are stories of discovery, with protagonists in search of themselves through finding others.

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