The very nature of death is absurd. The notion that a person can cease to exist, here in one moment and gone in the next, creates a strong sense of dissonance that, especially in those first minutes of grieving, makes the world feel surreal. Directly after my mom died, I couldn’t find my way out of the absurd hilarity of it. I spent a good twenty minutes laughing and making dark terrible jokes. My mind was stuck in its attempt to comprehend this impossible thing: my mother had gone past tense. A life that existed, suddenly, no longer did.
Reading Rabbit Cake felt like being caught in those twenty minutes again. The novel does not shy away from the absurdity of death. In fact, it embraces it, dives into it, and turns it into a strongly plotted and surprisingly entertaining narrative. Our narrator is ten-year-old Elvis Babbit, who describes, with specificity and dark humor, the year and a half after her mom’s death:
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.
Rabbit Cake is full of these tactilely rich descriptions. Elvis, like her mother, has a scientific mind, a keen sense of observation, and deep love of animals. She becomes increasingly preoccupied with the how’s and why’s of her mom’s death even as the adults in her life want to lay that matter to rest:
“She was a sleep swimmer. She drowned,” Dad tried to reason with me, as I rummaged through his bedside table again. “What else is there to know?”
When Lizzie, who inherited their mom’s sleepwalking, starts to sleep eat and raid the neighbor’s chicken coops at night, Elvis begins to worry for her sister’s safety. Much of this book’s tension is derived from that sisterly relationship, from the ways that Elvis worries over, and cares for, the teenage Lizzie while simultaneously resenting the attention that her sibling’s grief consumes. “I felt jealous that Lizzie missed Mom so much that something physical was happening to her,” Elvis admits as she struggles to understand how she, herself, should be grieving.
Elvis receives a grieving chart from her school counselor and the novel is structured primarily around charting the eighteen months that our narrator feels she has to mourn her mom. Like any good scientist, Elvis tracks her progress, recounting evidence of her family’s grief. She frequently tries to determine whether her family’s grief is normal or abnormal, returning, again and again to the DSM for Kids!, which tells her that “There is no wrong way to grieve, but if you believe your grief is abnormal, seek professional help immediately.” We see the limitations of adults and adult systems in Elvis’s world as her school counselor is equal parts helpful and overbearing/oversharing. We also see the ways that structures, like the grieving chart, provide Elvis with a much needed sense of solidity in an unmoored feeling time.
Rabbit Cake is a surprisingly fun book. It’s also a difficult book. It’s heartbreaking and uncomfortable in the best of ways and I laughed much of the way through as Elvis tries to understand her family’s grief and the adult world her mom inhabited. One of the most entertaining and evocative parts of this novel is its rendering of animals. We get the family dog, the new pet parrot who mysteriously mimics Elvis’s mom’s voice, the rabbit cakes her mom baked for every occasion that now seem to come to life beneath our narrator’s eyes, and the animals at the zoo where Elvis volunteers. It is through watching animals that Elvis tries to make sense of the world. She keeps working on her mom’s unfinished book about animal sleeping habits to better understand her sister’s sleepwalking. She watches animals grieve lost partners, die unexpectedly, be killed by humans, and give birth to new tottering creatures. There are, I believe, more animals in this book than there are human characters and Rabbit Cake is unique in its detailed rendering of, and great respect for, animal life.
As with any child narrator, Elvis’s perspective has its limitations and these felt particularly apparent for me as she described her dad’s habit of wearing his dead wife’s makeup and clothes. As someone with a trans partner living through our particularly fraught cultural moment, I wondered about this portrayal. In these sections, I wished I could better read around Elvis’s point of view in order to gain greater access to the specificity and depth of her dad’s grief. Elvis’s limited understanding of her sister’s experience was beautifully painful to read. As she tries to comprehend Lizzie, we feel her sisterly frustration bumping up against her sisterly admiration. Elvis’s need for her sister is wonderfully mixed into her need for her mother and it punctuates this often hilarious book with moments of intense longing and loss.
As the novel progressed I felt my reading experience mirroring Elvis’s frustrations with her own grieving process:
I worried I wasn’t normal because I felt sad, but not as sad as I wanted to feel, as sad as I thought someone with a dead mother should feel. I got out of bed every morning, and brushed my teeth, and walked the dog. I ate Fruity Pebbles for breakfast and they tasted fine. I raised my hand first in class whenever Ms. Powell asked a question. So much was the same as before. “Shouldn’t I feel worse?” I asked.
Like Elvis, I wanted to feel worse. I wanted to move past the absurdity of grief and into the dark blank dull sorrows that Lizzie seemed to be experiencing, into that physicalized grief that we imagine can make it feel real. But this novel kept me inside the absurdity, kept me experiencing it and interrogating it and reaching, like Elvis, for that ever-elusive grown-up access to grief’s receding depths.
Rabbit Cake, by Annie Hartnett. Portland, Oregon: Tin House Books, March 2017. 344 pages. $15.95, paper.
Miranda Schmidt’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, The Collagist, Phoebe, Luna Station Quarterly, and other journals. Miranda grew up in the Midwest and now lives with her partner and two cats in Portland, Oregon, where she edits the Sun Star Review, teaches at Portland Community College, and occasionally blogs about books at mirandaschmidt.com. A graduate of the University of Washington’s MFA program and a 2017 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow, Miranda recently completed a novel about haunting and is currently at work on a project inspired by shapeshifting fairy tales.