REVIEW: The Constant Rabbit – Jasper Fforde

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Author: Jasper Fforde (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Satire, fantasy

See Also: Early Riser

England, 2020.

There are 1.2 million human-sized rabbits living in the UK.

They can walk, talk and drive cars, the result of an Inexplicable  Anthropomorphising Event fifty-five years ago. And a family of rabbits is about to move into Much Hemlock, a cosy little village where life revolves around summer fetes, jam-making, gossipy corner stores, and the oh-so-important Best Kept Village awards.

No sooner have the rabbits arrived than the villagers decide they must depart. But Mrs Constance Rabbit is made of sterner stuff, and her family are behind her. Unusually, so are their neighbours, long-time residents Peter Knox and his daughter Pippa, who soon find that you can be a friend to rabbits or humans, but not both.

With a blossoming romance, acute cultural differences, enforced rehoming to a MegaWarren in Wales, and the full power of the ruling United Kingdom Anti Rabbit Party against them, Peter and Pippa are about to question everything they’d ever thought about their friends, their nation, and their species.

It’ll take a rabbit to teach a human humanity . . .

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Jasper Fforde’s adult fiction catalogue will know that he is absolutely great at changing just one thing about humanity, then extrapolating it to the nth degree, and then showing with some gentle satire how it impacts specifically Middle England. He usually does this in a gentle way, showing how people are innately ridiculous and inclined to follow established structures even if they make no sense, but his protagonists, generally a pleasant “everyman”, learn that things are Wrong and work to make things Better. This is true of Early Riser, and Shades of Grey (the sequel to which, by the way, this is not. Still. We’re going on 11 years now, it’s fine, I’m fine), and again of The Constant Rabbit.

When I read the blurb for this one, however, I did go “goodness, this is a bit on-the-nose for Fforde”, but I set it aside to read closer to the release date, and that’s how I ended up reading a very on-the-nose-not-just-for-Fforde and not-at-all-subtle book about the way Middle English conservatism treats oppressed minorities in the middle of global riots for BLM, as a prominent children’s author peddled transphobic ideologies during Pride Month, while the UK draws ever closer to crashing its way out of the EU in the most aggressive way possible.

So, that was great for my stress levels.

It’s clear – very clear – that this book was written in response to Brexit, and potentially the refugee crisis. It’s coded xenophobically, but a lot of the language in it, and the discussion of personhood echoes both with racist and homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. I get the impression Fforde is angry. It caught me by surprise, I follow his instagram and it’s almost entirely photographs of aeroplanes, ceilings and vegetables. Clearly instead of venting his spleen online, he channelled into a book that is both a laughably thinly-veiled allegory of current behaviour (and I think that’s intentional) and absolutely unforgiving in the way society breeds and enables these ideals.

Why do I think it’s about Brexit? The UK Anti-Rabbit Party (or UKARP), and discussion of a thinly-won referendum that only half the country voted in to move all rabbits to a mega-warren in Wales, as well as an attitude of “the country voted for it, so let’s get it done” regardless of whether it’s right or in the best interests of… anyone. People getting more angry about being seen as “leporiphobic” than about actual leporiphobia (fear of rabbits, btw).

And, honestly, I think when this was written and Brexit was the most obvious allegory for it all, it possibly wouldn’t have hit so many sensitive spots for me. I can see absolutely Fforde’s intentions, and what he’s trying to do, but unfortunately art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The world has kept changing and more issues are surging up around the ones that initially inspired this book, and those issues are equally reflected in these pages. I know that Fforde’s aim in this book by using rabbits was to create a scapegoat figure outside of immigrants or religious minorities, to show how ridiculous the behaviour and rhetoric is. I know that his usual method of satire is reductio ad absurdum – look how stupid it is when people get so upset about this thing. And rabbits are animals which don’t have the same loaded cultural significance as other mammals in terms of racist approaches. But… there is still something uncomfortable about the stand in for immigrants (or BAME people, certain reglious groups, or LGBTQ+ people) being an animal, anthropomorphic or otherwise, because there’s a lot of history comparing exactly these groups of society to animals. Calling them vermin (a word often used to describe, you guessed it, rabbits), accusing them of causing global warming or taking over by having too many kids (and this is dealt with in the book by people fearing a campaign of “Litter Bombing” by rabbits to outnumber humans), worrying they’ll radicalise their children (into, in this case, “aggressive veganism”, which from what I’ve seen of Gen Z it’s too late for that, they’re already there), making relationships illegal (interspecies relationships has a clear analogue to mixed-raced relationships which were illegal in the US and South Africa within living memory, and in many countries around the world same-sex relationships are still illegal, and in some punishable by the death penalty).

It was nice to see some of Fforde’s tropes appearing like familiar old friends (Tunnock’s teacakes, and I hope Rick Astley makes it into the final book this time, after not surviving until publication for Early Riser), but it feels a bit like this is a book based around an idea rather than a driving plot. It’s an examination of human identity and habits, and how poisonous certain ideals can become, dressed up under middle class sensibilities. Everything seems very polite, but underneath it’s dirty and vicious.

I enjoyed the exploration of Peter as well, and the slow realisation that even if he hasn’t been overtly anti-rabbit, he’s made no moves to help them, and has in fact enabled their oppression through his “non-committal, a-political” approach, and through the work he does under the excuse that it would happen whether he was there or not. These explorations I think are extremely important at this time, and while they’re not particularly subtle, perhaps the people who need this message wouldn’t understand it if it were more subtle. Being a-political is an inherently political stance because it means allowing negative political and social actions to continue and granting them space and relevance equal to positive political and social actions. By not speaking out against oppression, by allowing people to say and do things that limit oppressed minorities around you, you’re enabling and encouraging that oppression to continue. You set the status quo for these people as “lesser”, their discomfort as an acceptable collateral for maintaining a status quo that harms them. Inaction is a political stance because you can afford to be inactive, many people can’t because inaction can see their rights eroded, and even their lives brought into danger.

On that note, I thought the discussion of being able to change, and making incremental amends, was quite important. Certainly I’ve observed that otherwise good people can become quite touchy if you try to explain these systems to them, and believe it a personal slight on their own moral character. Peter – middle-aged, middle-class – is forced to go through that self-assessment. Is he inherently a bad person? No. Has he done as much as he could have done to be a better person? No. Could he do more? Yes. The important thing is not clinging to your past stubbornly because you feel that you did nothing wrong, or because you didn’t know better at the time. You know better now, you can do and be better now, and it will take time and work, and you will slip. But in learning by increments and working in increments, it becomes more achievable and in time increments can move you a long way.

So, while I wasn’t entirely comfortable with elements of this book, perhaps it’s because I’m not the primary audience of it. I’m not perfect, but I try my best to be aware of my actions and to listen and to learn. I try to use my position to speak up for people who don’t have those voices. This book is for people who don’t listen or notice these things, but who don’t want to hurt anyone either. They aren’t malicious, they just need to be open and honest about things they might not like about themselves, and instead of holding onto it, try to better themselves.

In that instance, maybe the use of rabbits is a good way to put this argument forwards, because it might make the concepts less personal and easier to contemplate for the target audience. It’s the first step to examining their own behaviours without making it directly about them, OR defining which group is specific to them. It’s an introduction to social awareness.

I am still not sure how I feel about this book personally. I think it’s one I’m probably going to have to ponder on for a while, like The Power. It might be that I like it better in the context of other books I read, it might be the idea sticks with me for a while to come. I don’t know. I think I’m glad it’s out there, I just think some of the analogies in it might be unfortunately timed for current events, even if the central message is a positive one.

Briefly:

  • A book exploring prejudice and social oppression through the lense of humans vs giant anthropomorphic rabbits. Its parallels aren’t subtle, and it isn’t an easy read if you’ve found a certain flavour of politics quite stressful over recent years.
  • It doesn’t have the sort of plot that usually pushes a Fforde book forwards, because it’s not really about the plot, it’s about circumstances coming together to help an everyman figure realise his faults and how to become a better person.
  • I found the ending a little lacklustre, but the emphasis isn’t really on the outcome of the plotline so perhaps that’s why it doesn’t feel like a major payoff. It’s about character growth, and you do see that.

Rating: 3/5 – based on whether I personally enjoyed it, this wasn’t the Fforde for me; or perhaps it wasn’t my time to read this Fforde, given the way the world is right now and my feelings about it. But, overall, I’m glad it exists and I hope strongly that it will be a way to start difficult conversations that we’ve tried to have, and might help the world become a more understanding place.

The Constant Rabbit is on sale from 2nd July 2020.

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