by Sophie Overett
Published July 2021
It will be interesting to see the impact of two years of state and international border closures upon Australian literature. As a keen reader growing up in regional Queensland, I felt – no doubt like many other keen readers in small towns – that I knew the rest of the world better than my own: Queensland rarely appeared in the books I could get at, and Toowoomba never. Times have changed, but the extraordinary success of Trent Dalton’s 2018 Boy Swallows Universe, steeped in Brisbane’s surreal humidity, staked a claim for Queensland stories that sometimes still feel overlooked in the Australian imaginary. In The Rabbits we have another much-lauded novel set in Brisbane in which the city’s heat, if not precise geography, also pervades the narrative in a way that is both captivating and uncanny. Sophie Overett’s manuscript was winner of the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize for an unpublished work of literary fiction. The book has since been recognised with the 2021 Kathleen Mitchell Award for an author aged thirty or under: testament, along with its shortlisting for other prizes, to the author’s way with character and words.
For a first-time novelist it is a big book and, like many such books, it deals with families, their myths, and the burdens passed between generations. One of those burdens is grief. The book opens with Delia Rabbit remembering her sister Bo, who went missing as a teenager. The pain haunts her still. ‘Can you scrub grief from your mind, or does it bury you alive? Does it choke the earth of you? Salt your soul until nothing ever grows again?’ Delia’s partner and father of her three children, Ed, has also disappeared, although his whereabouts – in an apartment with a much younger colleague – are all too agonizingly known. And then there’s Charlie, Delia’s second-born, who fails to come home one night and who, it soon emerges, is missing.
As the novel unfolds, we accompany the three family members left behind – Delia, her eldest child Olive, and youngest son Benjamin – as they negotiate the queasy pain of the days that follow. Each has their own way of not coping. Delia, floored by the disappearance of a second family member, throws herself into her work as an art college lecturer and her affair with a young male student. Olive, twenty years old and ‘a grown-arse woman, Delia’ (as she reminds her mother), returns to her job at a grocery store where she alternates between cleaning out the rotting fruit and veg and skiving off with workmate, Lux, or love interest, Jude. And 11-year-old Benjamin, struggling with night-time bed-wetting since his father’s departure, begins wetting himself during the day, including at school.
The exploration of the aftermath of a disappearance or death is a popular plot device: Overett, at the Brisbane launch of her novel, defined The Rabbits as a ‘collateral damage narrative’. But Charlie’s disappearance is why The Rabbits stumbles early on. In our media-saturated world, even those of us who have never experienced the loss of a loved one in this way are familiar with what happens next. The missing person – at least if they are of a certain social and cultural background – becomes public property, better and more widely known in their absence than at any previous point in their life. There is a collective holding of breath. Family members, meanwhile, appear on TV and do their utmost to keep the story in the news, their lives frozen as the search persists.
This should all have been true of the disappearance of the young, white, middle-class, sixteen-year-old Charlie Rabbit, a sensitive science nerd most often to be found recording observations in his notebook. And yet for his family, life resumes immediately: Olive goes out that night, Delia and Benjamin go to work and school the next day. ‘Keely and McBride’, the police assigned to the case, make only brief appearances, seeming better suited, rather like their names, to an American crime series. Even Delia realises, ‘I should be fighting it all, right? I should be at the station every day, I should be on the news, I should be….I don’t know.’ As a result, it not entirely easy for the reader to believe that this is the family of a missing child…perhaps because the author herself does not.
What the author does believe in is the importance of being seen, and in dissecting the ways we behave when we feel we are not, or at least, not in the ways we would like. As social media offers the lure of being seen on a greater scale than ever before, these are important questions, explored here through disappearance in its many forms.. An older work colleague shares with Olive the story of the death of her little boy. The mother of Benjamin’s new friend Poppy is dying but Poppy is reluctant even to acknowledge her existence. Olive, her body wasting under the assault of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol, cannot face being home in the days following Charlie’s disappearance, and is jolted out of herself only when Benjamin, too, briefly goes missing. In some of these acts of disappearance, there is a warning almost adolescent in its threat: see me as I want to be seen or I’ll vanish. In others, we find lessons about how to treat our loved ones, even when they are at their most challenging and we at our least patient, even when their truths are too painful to contemplate.
The names of Overett’s characters display the dichotomy between how we are seen and how we would like to be seen. The Benjamin of the family is Banjo for short, not Ben, a diktat Poppy unilaterally overrides. Delia was once, but is no longer ‘Del’. Her neighbour is the improbable-sounding ‘November’. One of Delia’s students bears ‘[s]ome grandiose French name[,] Pygmalioning a working-class Australian girl.’ Lux, who watched The Virgin Suicides a few too many times’, is actually Anna, and Delia named Olive after the photographer Olive Cotton (‘You know the joke. Cotton tails, rabbits.’) As Poppy admonishes Benjamin, ‘Nobody is ever just one person, stupid.’ But the author is also reminding us that these names record our existence when our bodies, like that of Charlie, are no longer.
Overett has said that the character of Charlie Rabbit came to her already named, the book’s title a reference not to John Updike or Roddy Doyle’s Rabbitte family, but to Australia’s loaded relationship with the species (bringing to mind John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s 1998 picture book of the same name). Rabbit references abound: Benjamin and Olive on separate occasions ‘tr[y] to slow’ their ‘rabbit heart’, Delia’s ‘rabbit heart’ thumps in her throat, Lux graffitis a cartoon rabbit on a wall, others ‘rabbit on’ or burrow into each other for comfort. But however common rabbits literary and leporid, these Rabbits – ‘The Rambunctious, Riveting Rabbits’ as Bo would say – have a secret quite unlike any others.
Magical realism perhaps works best when the alternate world on offer is close enough to make it deliciously plausible. As with Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, certain characters possess abilities that cannot be explained or readily controlled. These abilities (whose logistics sometimes prove tricky for the author) range from the trivial to life-changing, and play on the questions that infuse the book. What does it mean to be seen? How do we behave when we feel we are not seen? How do we get better at seeing others? What if we can’t face being seen at all? Driving this para-reality is the tension that so often results from the pursuit of personal satisfaction at the expense of maintaining our closest bonds. When Olive watches her father leave again after Charlie’s disappearance (‘He leaves. He just leaves.’), we register the physical impact of this ongoing rejection as she stumbles towards her stash of weed, wrapping it with ‘still-trembling fingers’. But what if there were other ways in which our bodies could process our emotions? Here is where the central conceit of The Rabbits, which I won’t spoil, will either hold its attraction or fall down for readers.
It is also where the author’s setting of a Brisbane summer, with its unbearable humidity and attendant stenches, its shrieking birdlife and eager maggots, comes into its own, a setting that makes the weirdness around it – as messages from Charlie start to appear – almost work. Overett was raised in Brisbane, and her marriage of the real and unreal is deft: we are taken to places that do exist (Kangaroo Point, Minnippi Park) and others that do not (Hovell lookout, the suburb of Shepherd), a reminder that we have entered a strange, sultry sub-world where anything might occur. Benjamin and Poppy meet the uncertainties in their lives by playing superheroes, yet in Overett’s alt-Brisbane, magical powers might be more common than we think.
Overett is at her most convincing in the depiction of the very real, relentlessly punishing challenges of being female. She is particularly good on motherhood: a topic which, she has pointed out, has not been written about as much as we tend to think (although writers such as Susan Johnson with From Where I Fell – published earlier this year, and featuring a family similar in constitution and dissonance – are showing how it should be done). Like Johnson, Overett gives us, in detail still infrequently committed to the page, the exhausting daily tasks Delia must perform, missing child or otherwise: the preparation and clearing up of meal after meal, the soaking and washing of Benjamin’s urine-dank clothes, the attempt to somehow care both for children and an aged parent with dementia. And all of this, always, at the expense of how Delia – not a natural parent, she believes – might prefer to spend her time. Delia long ago lost the confidence to practice the art she teaches, and when Charlie’s disappearance leads her to pull out her easel again, we wonder if she can redraw her world as she would have liked. Her relationship with her own mother, Rosemary, acts as a barrier: hollowed by loss, Rosie directed her anger towards her surviving daughter, something Delia fears she is doing to Olive. Just as trauma can transfuse generations, these two women stretched boundaries only to find themselves flung back. Overett offers an intriguing outlet, and not only through Olive’s mouthiness.
More than its supernatural bent, The Rabbits is distinguished by its attention to language. The Rabbit’s house ‘is stark in the yawn of dusk’, ‘bright-lipped orchids sit open-mouthed in a pot’. Some of the more self-consciously beautiful passages can be obtrusive, but Overett is particularly good on the shared territory of human and non-human inhabitants:
The narrow path leading up to their tall and lurching house is early engulfed by wilted grass, and by the time the sun sets none of them will be able to walk out here without kicking a broad-faced cane toad or tangling themselves in the silky strings of a spider’s web. Benjamin mostly just hopes for owls, the frog-mouthed ones with beaks like secret keepers, but the wildness of the yard isn’t quite wild enough for them yet.
Such carefully composed passages sit oddly beside more casual descriptions. Jude ‘is straight out of a teen soap’, Officer Keely has ‘Hermione Granger hair’ and there are more than few instances of repetition, misuse of words, and chronological slips. But Overett’s skill at dialogue (she also writes for television) and at crafting her characters’ inner worlds ensures we keep wondering about the Rabbits after the book’s end: it comes as no surprise that the author has already given some characters fictional afterlives.
As might be expected with a first novel, we sometimes see the seams unpicked and resewn. Certain elements – such as the abandoned house Lux encourages Olive to help her destroy – seem slightly laboured, and anyone who has spent time in a university in the last twenty-odd years might query a lecture room with ‘flaking chalk’ and a blackboard. The frequent pops of Instagram wisdom (‘You haven’t failed. You just haven’t finished yet’) won’t sit well with all readers. And the Brisbane Overett portrays feels largely monocultural: it is a novel set in, rather than of Brisbane.
The cover of The Rabbits, showing a Hills Hoist and overgrown lawn, indicates something hiding in this suburban household, even as an outsized sun bears down, reminding us of the deep shadows it can cast. In the end, Charlie’s disappearance remains unfathomable, even though in his absence, we and his family come to know him a little better. If The Rabbits is more prolonged family drama than mystery or crime novel, it excels at exposing the small frictions and life-sapping tensions of family life, the way secrets can hamstring relationships, relationships can fall apart, and family members can still band together regardless.
In this light, the supernatural elements of The Rabbits, although perhaps enticing for anyone raised on Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Marvel Universe, feel unnecessary, especially when pushed past their initial manifestation. The manuscript in a much earlier incarnation was shortlisted for the Text Prize for Young Adult writing and may, with the author’s gift for getting inside the heads – and bodies – of children and teenagers, have found a more natural home in that category (tagline: ‘Sometimes you have to disappear to be seen’). But Overett’s talent is clear, in her lush prose, in her ability to meld story and setting, and most of all, in her imagining of what it is like to be a harried mother, a pissed-off teenager, a woman with dementia, a frightened child or any of the other individuals that people The Rabbits.
The annual SRB fundraising campaign is underway and we’re asking readers to consider making a donation. If you value what the SRB does, you can make a tax-deductible donation.