If Watership Down were to meet the Flashman novels—well, the result still wouldn’t be quite like this perky debut, not until you threw in a little Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, maybe.
Rabbits don’t live overly long. William, a white rabbit—cue Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack if you will and must—is 11, a ripeness that “obliges me to press on with my storytelling.” William is a winsome character, his granny, Old Lavender, a little less tender but always good for a morsel of wisdom: “The most interesting things in life cannot be seen, William,” she intones, which is perhaps why lagomorphs—not rodents, mind you—are so committed to digging deep down into the earth. In debut novelist Francombe’s charming confection, William determines that the burrow in which he lives was once part of the Belgian battlefield on which Napoleon and Wellington slugged it out for the last time, which means that plenty of ancestral rabbits must have been blown to bits two centuries ago but also that the survivors “had not been too traumatized to procreate.” Chasing down the reverberations of that history through modern rabbitdom, Francombe would seem to be serving up an allegory, and though what she’s allegorizing isn’t exactly clear—war, memory, the importance of family, and maybe even rabbit-free cuisine are all thematic candidates—she never lets on that this coney island of the mind isn’t an impossibility. Nicely developed, too, is her sense of how rabbits think of time: there isn’t a lot of it in their world, but that doesn’t mean that one needs to scamper about mindlessly, for, to quote William by way of Old Lavender once more, “to do something important at the wrong moment is worse than not doing it at all.” You’d look high and low, too, for a better description of how rabbits actually are—twitchy and pensive but also content to spend their days “eyes half shut, contemplating the infinite.”
Engaging, pleasantly written, and endlessly inventive: all promising signs and a reader’s delight.