Delia Rabbit does not paint anymore. Yet when her son Charlie goes missing – dredging up memories of Delia’s sister, Bo, who also disappeared when they were teenagers – she picks up her brush once again, as if she can magic him back through art.
Set in the hot, stuffy suburbs of Brisbane, a place “thick with insects – long-legged midges and swollen mosquitoes, tiny fruit flies, all with whirring wings and groping feelers”, Sophie Overett’s debut novel, The Rabbits, explores, with a sprinkling of superhero powers, themes of loss and recovery, and what makes people visible or concealed.
At the centre of this sprawling family novel is Delia, an artist-turned-teacher at a Queensland college who has stopped creating her own work, and her dementia-riddled mother, Rosie, who is now reliant on nurses. Her ex, Ed, lives with his new girlfriend but is still drawn to his former partner, and their three children – Benjamin, 11, Charlie, 16, and Olive, 20 – are each struggling with their own identities.
While it’s Charlie who goes missing – and whose sudden disappearance provides the novel with its magical realism twist – it is Delia’s relationship with her daughter that propels the book forward and proves to be its most compelling. Olive, after all, is angry. Angry at the disintegration of her parents’ relationship. Angry at her mother’s affair with a student, the curly-haired, languid, seductively attentive Griff. Angry at Delia’s beauty while she is a young woman who, despite her “near-chemical blue eyes” and long limber legs, can appear too angular, too unkind, “like barbed wire caught in sweet, rich silk”.
And so, while Charlie literally vanishes, Olive rebels in a way more ordinary to many parents and yet just as devastating: she sticks around but becomes a stranger.
The Rabbits won the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize and it’s easy to see why. Overett has a deft hand at conjuring up her characters: Bo was “bookish and quiet, but a sly sort of quiet”; Griff has a grin “a little too knowing, too smug, too young”. Still, Overett can sometimes overwrite, using a multitude of descriptions when just one will do. What makes The Rabbits ambitious, even if she doesn’t quite achieve what she sets out to do, is its attempt to probe what is left unsaid and unseen within a family – and to show what can be salvaged.
Vintage Australia, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "The Rabbits, Sophie Overett".
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