Monday, 24 September 2012

Rabbityness, by Jo Empson

The use of colour in Jo Empson’s Rabbityness is really interesting. It is a book that, after my first reading, left me thinking that is was full of colour - colour and prancing rabbits. With a second reading, though, I see that the pages of colour are cleverly tempered with a series of very washed out images, designed to reflect sadness and emptiness. The contrast between these two elements of the book are quite key to the story.

Rabbityness starts off by introducing me to Rabbit, a little black rabbit who likes doing all the normal sort of rabbity things. The images are plain and simple: a black rabbit and green grass on a white background. But Rabbit also likes to do unrabbity things, and here the page explodes into colour: bright splodges of blue and pink, orange and green on one page as Rabbit paints; musical notes and little birds dance across the next page as Rabbit blows a multicoloured didgeridoo; a forest of little black rabbits dancing among brightly coloured trees as Rabbit fills the wood with infectious colour and music.

And then... Rabbit is gone. Boom. After all the colour, there is just a white page with a handful of leaves drifting across it. Rabbit’s disappearance leaves the woods devoid of colour, grey and washed out. “All that Rabbit had left was a hole... a deep dark hole.” Clearly this all represents sadness at the loss of Rabbit and the idea that the world may never be bright again. The other rabbits venture into Rabbit’s hole, presumably to look for him. And inside they find all the things that Rabbit had used to make colour and music. Soon they start experimenting with the paints and instruments themselves and quickly discover that they rather like doing unrabbity things just as much as Rabbit did. And doing unrabbity things reminds them of Rabbit, which makes them happy again. The end.

I can see where Empson has tried to go with this book, but it all happens very quickly and slightly surreally. Rabbit’s disappearance is incredibly sudden, with no warning at all; the first time I read this it was quite a shock. I understand that, in reality, the death of a loved one can be very sudden like this, especially from a child’s perspective. But I’m not sure that suddenly throwing it out like that in a book is going to be particularly helpful to an already grieving child: some warning would be nice, and is more likely to help a grieving child. I also understand that the second part of the story is trying to say that things can be ok again after someone has gone, but in Rabbityness they get ok again very very quickly, without any period of mourning, and I don’t think this is particularly realistic. It’s almost like saying to the reader, ok, they’ve gone, but they left some good stuff behind, and you can think about them, and that should be enough to make to you happy. But we all know that that is not quite how things really work.

Empson has produced an interesting book that is bright and cheerful and full of joy to begin with, but takes a sinister turn part way through, and it doesn’t quite get back on track again afterwards. While her intentions are true, I’m not convinced they are successful.

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