Ecosystems perpetually hang in delicate balance, as much with humans as any other species. This is perhaps one thesis of Annie Hartnett’s ebullient Rabbit Cake, a novel loaded with dark humor and self-diagnosed moroseness, but also one that bursts forth with optimism at every turn. Hartnett’s work is interested in classification to say the least, and offers genuine consideration of family dynamics that span the animal kingdom at large.
Rabbit Cake, told from the perspective of Elvis Babbitt, an inquisitive ten-year-old girl with a passion for zoology, follows the Babbitt family in the months following the death of Elvis’ mother, Eva, who disappeared and was found weeks later drowned in the Chattahoochee River. Foul play is not ruled out, but Eva was a notorious sleepwalker prone to swimming in her nocturnal state. Hence, Elvis, her older sister Lizzie, and her father are relatively unsurprised by Eva’s demise, but do carry immense emotional baggage for not finding a way to ultimately save her from her perilous nighttime habits.
The Babbitt family is well known around their small fictional hometown of Freedom, Alabama. Mr. Babbitt owns a local carpeting empire passed down from his father. Lizzie has been deemed a problem child by every teacher with which she’s crossed paths, leaving Elvis often marred in her sister’s shadow. In reaction to their mother’s death, Lizzie’s own hereditary sleepwalking habits gets increasingly dangerous, Mr. Babbitt takes to wearing Eva’s bathrobe and lipstick, and Elvis dives headfirst into her mother’s research on the sleeping habits of animals. Meanwhile, as each family member finds their own method of mourning, there are abundant cakes baked in a rabbit-shaped mold, a constant comfort that gives presence to their lost matriarch.
From the get-go, Elvis Babbitt is a splendid narrator, one equally precocious and naïve. While possessing scientific curiosity and a gifted mind, she also demonstrates youthful honesty in situations that require nuanced emotional intelligence. In other words, she lacks the ability to self-edit. Her frankness serves as a social crutch among her classmates and a social boon among adults who are swept away by her intellect.
Elvis’s indefatigable sense of intrigue, a trait she inherited from her mother, makes the more sentimental passages of Rabbit Cake all the more endearing, and allows Hartnett to seamlessly include a miscellany of animal factoids throughout Elvis’s telling of the story. Elvis is interested in everything from the hierarchal structure of naked mole rat communities to the eating habits of ill giraffes. This fifth-grade sense of wonder is done with an adept touch, so that the prose syncs up perfectly with the character’s age and emotional state while still maintaining stylistic maturity.
This balance, overall, adds a humorous matter-of-fact quality to Elvis’s narration. For example, within a page and a half of being introduced, Elvis talks about her mother’s death in blunt terms: “That same year my birthday cake came out of the oven with a scalded nose, ears, and tail, Mom was returned to us in a plastic baggie, her ashes like the gray dust you’ll find when you open up the vacuum.”
Perhaps, astute observations such as this have a certain emotional clarity and straightforwardness implicit of childhood. In this regard, Rabbit Cake manages to capture the nostalgia and hyper-acuity of how it feels to be young.
Additionally, there’s an aura of small town melancholy throughout the novel that television has been cashing in on for years. Nothing about Rabbit Cake necessarily screams Twin Peaks or Friday Night Lights, but Hartnett implements parallel community structures to these programs by introducing mysterious fringe characters that play important roles throughout the narrative. Moreover, the supporting cast—ranging from an adulterous pet shop owner to a teenage sculptor who inherited a seaside motel—contributes to Freedom’s offbeat vibe and strengthens the peculiarity of the sense of place.
Through all her personal inquiry, Elvis does find emotional insight. Early on, the guidance counselor at Elvis’s school tells her it will take her eighteen months to get over Eva’s death. In those tumultuous months, Elvis takes away some larger lessons from her mother.
I know that Mom loved being alive. That was what her rabbit cakes were about, celebrating every small good thing in your life. I know most families don’t celebrate every new moon or every solstice and equinox, but maybe they should. You never know when someone you love will shoot themselves in the middle of their own birthday party, or be found dead in another state, caught in a river dam, so everyone might as well have their cake right now.
Hartnett’s novel has all of the enduring qualities of a literary classic. Freedom functions as the in-between town that seems to exist outside of space and time despite its specific geography. The Babbitt family, while quirky and esoteric, showcase familiar emotional tendencies and existential crises to which everyone can relate. Rabbit Cake thus finds universal comedic truths in the face of indomitable loss, reinvigorates the sensory thrill of childhood, and reveals how familial strength can help overcome individual grief.
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Publisher: Tin House Books
Reviewed by Aram Mrjoian