In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brings together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Blandine isn’t like the other residents of her building. An online obituary writer. A young mother with a dark secret. A woman waging a solo campaign against rodents—neighbors, separated only by the thin walls of a low-cost housing complex in the once bustling industrial center of Vacca Vale, Indiana. Welcome to the Rabbit Hutch. Ethereally beautiful and formidably intelligent, Blandine shares her apartment with three teenage boys she neither likes nor understands, all, like her, now aged out of the state foster care system that has repeatedly failed them, all searching for meaning in their lives. Set over one sweltering week in July and culminating in a bizarre act of violence that finally changes everything, The Rabbit Hutch is a savagely beautiful and bitingly funny snapshot of contemporary America, a gorgeous and provocative tale of loneliness and longing, entrapment and, ultimately, freedom.”
The Rabbit Hutch is about how our lives, even those that meet in the most fleeting moments or maybe not even directly at all, have long-lasting effects on each other. How does a passing conversation between strangers linger? How does a mean comment on an obituary come to be? Gunty does this by introducing us to a large cast of narrators. Each character is at a different stage of life and is facing their own problems. The only thing most seem to have in common is that they’re all tied to a run-down apartment complex known as the Rabbit Hutch. As the story unfolds, their sometimes very brief moments of interactions eventually snowball into a very violent act.
Isolation is what ties all of these stories together. At first, aside from some of them being neighbors or roommates, the many narrators really don’t have a lot to do with each other. They are each simply living their lives independent and lonely. A group of recently aged-out foster kids are learning how to interact with attraction. A young mother deals with the stress of a new baby. A woman deals with the stress of her job as the moderator for an obituary website. The man-child of a recently deceased celebrity seeks to announce to the world how terrible of a mother she was. Each of these eccentric characters lives their life more or less independent of the others. Bit by bit, their lives are shown to be more interconnected than they realize. The new mom grieves for the celebrity. The celebrity’s obituary is posted to a website one neighbor moderates. A tossed mouse carcass from one neighbor leads to revenge on another. A chance meeting while doing laundry leads to a lasting impression. Still, despite each of them being desperate to connect with others, each character is unwilling to simply open the door and connect to their neighbor. So it’s isolation, this self-imposed mindset and not a physical barrier, that becomes the central focus of the novel. It’s a timely message for a world where many of us, me included, don’t know our neighbors.
Gunty does a great job at making each of her many, many narrators unique even while they’re all grappling with the same isolation, the same desperate desire to be seen and wanted by someone. No two characters attempt tackle their shared problem the same way. Some become desperate for connection and seek it in inappropriate relationships and others, still desperate, go on to commit more desperate acts in order to simply be noticed. Some lash out in anger, repelling people away. Some don’t try to fight it at all. The Rabbit Hutch becomes a reminder that no matter how alone we may feel, we are all still a part of the world and each of our actions helps the world take shape for everyone else.
The captivating prose in Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch constantly made me forget I was reading a dark novel. It addressed various subjects including animal cruelty, mental illness, isolation, and beliefs to name a few. I could fill pages trying to summarize all the characters and their happenings and it would not matter because you’d need to read this beautifully written novel to truly capture what Gunty is illustrating. The Rabbit Hutch is not plot-driven, yet why did I find myself curiously turning each page and by the end, anxiously waiting to read the words I already knew were written there? Gunty ambitiously launches us from character to character, past to present, an entertaining self-written obituary, a comment section sprinkled with emojis, a list of quotes and even a chapter that boldly, and understandably so, presents itself as a graphic novel. While it is easy to get lost in the structure of some of these chapters, there is only one, in which gossip is interwoven between high school test questions, that I found obstructive.
The rather humorous novel takes place in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a deteriorating city plagued with more than just poverty and benzene contamination with environmental repercussions as a result. The novel begins, ends and always circles back to the Rabbit Hutch, which is an affordable apartment complex that houses most of the numerous, damaged and outcast-type characters we pan between. We get to know most of them on a hauntingly deep and personal level thanks to third-person narration. Frequently throughout her piece, Gunty mentions rabbits and it is impossible to ignore. From Death wearing socks embroidered with white rabbits to rabbit figurines staring frantically at whoever looks at them, I think they serve as a reminder to the reader that it is the characters themselves who are driving the story. The more we learn about these individuals, who at first glance seem like a collection of sporadic short stories, the more we realize they matter the most. Not one character is alike neither in their persona nor their devastating past nor current adversities. Yet they all share the same burden of trying to persevere in a dying city with little hope that those offering to help will actually deliver.
Granted, there were some characters and dialogue that I had trouble digesting because I didn’t think they were genuine and even mesmerizing writing couldn’t overshadow this. However, in the end, I can easily say that most of our beloved characters ended up being interconnected and significant, driving Gunty’s message home: humans need to start taking each other more seriously. I would recommend this novel to those that are patient enough to immerse themselves in the minds of seemingly random characters in order to appreciate them as a whole in the end.
Brittenny De La Cruz
For a deep dive into character, Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch doesn’t disappoint. Set in an affordable housing complex in a fictional Midwestern town, the apartment’s inhabitants provide a variety of personalities to explore. The banal, the minutiae, the absurd—all of a character’s interiority and history is covered in detail whether they appear for a few pages or multiple chapters.
But as wide-ranging as these characters are, and as experimental as the book becomes, The Rabbit Hutch avoids reading like a character’s summary because all of these details serve a purpose: to understand what drives a person. And, interestingly enough, this commonality is simple. Blandine Watkins, one of the central characters of the novel, puts it pointedly: “in the end, she was insignificant to the person who was most significant to her.” That slight imbalance, between what we mean to ourselves and to others, is enough to set all the cascading events in The Rabbit Hutch into motion.
It is often said that characters should always take center stage in a novel, and in the case of Tess Gunty’s, The Rabbit Hutch, they certainly do. Of them all, Blandine is queen. I found myself attracted to Blandine with a strange morbid fascination, very similar to the she-mystics Blandine herself idolizes.
The narrative, which shifts beautifully from mundane and almost expected tragedies to over-the-top and nearly fantastical ones, only builds on this mysticism than surrounds her. The other characters, while full of their own lush issues, all orbit around Blandine like minor players in a Greek tragedy. The strongest characters were the ones that became nearly archetypal in the roles they played at the end of Blandine’s story. However, when the scope of the narrative expanded past these characters to encompass the entirety of the Rabbit Hutch Apartments and all who live there, it dipped a little into overindulgence for me.
The writing itself had plenty of interesting concepts that hit their marks well, from blog posts to poetry, to an entire chapter of paintings. However, it also had its pitfalls. These came in the form of dialogue that felt unnatural for the sake of “saying something” and moments where it felt the author paused the flow of a scene to insist upon some grander point that was inferable and really didn’t need to be made.
Curated by Brandon Williams