Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Angus Gaunt
13th May 2020, $32.50, 188 pages, ISBN 978 1 76041 901 1
I know we’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but the cover of Angus Gaunt’s Black Rabbit is pretty striking. The image is taken from a larger work by artist Emily Hunt and is detailed, funny and grotesque all at once, which fits perfectly with Black Rabbit which is also detailed, funny and, at times, grotesque. The book takes the point of view of Maurice, a privileged businessman who opens the door of the chief mourners car he has hired for his aunt Patricia’s funeral to find a stranger occupying the seat. The stranger, called Sandford, is odd and doesn’t explain himself, although he clearly knew Patricia. In spite of Maurice’s irritation, he begins to find himself drawn into Sandford’s life – or maybe it’s Sandford who moves into Maurice’s life, unravelling Maurice’s facade of respectability and changing everything. Either way, the story unfolds like a mystery, as Sandford (and his black rabbit) increasingly becomes a catalyst for change. In the unpicking, Maurice finds out that the world is a very different place depending on your perspective, and that his own perspective was very limited.
Gaunt’s writing is consistently strong and sparse, but also richly comedic – with a narrative flow that is Kafka-like in the way it reveals details slowly to an equally unknowing reader. The work has a sardonic quality that allows the reader to accept the fantastical and slightly manic/magical nature of the events that unfold. The description of Sandford on the first page is masterful:
The stranger sits angled over crossed forearms and knees, as though it’s his aim to take up the least possible space. The collar of his shirt rises up over his jacket, cradling a round head with two mandibular cheeks. He could be hunchbacked, or without a neck, it is difficult to tell. His shoes are newly polished, with cracks in the toe leather, and his head bears the stunned, slightly discomforted appearance of a recent haircut. Evidently he has gone to some trouble to make himself neat for the occasion. (7)
While it is clear that there is a power imbalance between Maurice and Sandford at the start, the dynamic between the two of them changes, as it does between Maurice and his wife, his son, and his sisters as the narrative arc develops. The book reads quickly, drawn along by Maurice’s curiosity, even as Maurice’s transformation happens slowly and subtly enough so that it feels as natural as the black rabbit that Sandford gifts to Maurice: “lolloping out of its lair, standing up on its hind legs and sniffing the air with its pink, querulous nose.” (29).
Through the chain of events that happen to Maurice, he suddenly discovers his neighbourhood and the people who live around him, and even an op shop – a space he barely noticed in the past:
It is Maurice’s first time inside a charity shop. An aroma of baked-on sweat lingers in every corner, but it is densely stocked and the clothes are prismatically grouped on their racks, which gives the place a surprising air of efficiency. (90)
There is a sense, even as Maurice’s world falls apart, that he’s growing in some way—uncovering the lie at the heart of everything he has believed about himself and about what matters. There are many times when the work shifts tone, from serious and cautious, to wild and even slapstick.
It’s possible, I think, to read Black Rabbit as social commentary. There is a hint of that in Maurice’s trajectory, and in the way Sandford attempts to educate Maurice, who begins to perceive the flow of humanity around him, and his connection to it that he had not seen before, with a measure of empathy, wondering about his aunt and how her life must have been. However, I think it would be a mistake to assign a morality to Black Rabbit. For one thing, Sanford is no saviour–he’s no more reliable than Maurice, and his intentions remain suspect. For another, it is clear that Gaunt is having too much fun with the narrative to limit the book to a single purpose. There are multiple ways to read Black Rabbit, and the reader is invited to take part in the meaning making in a way that is very open. You can imagine Maurice’s arc in multiple ways. However you choose to interpret it, Black Rabbit is a terrific read, full of unpredictable twists, well-drawn characters and an unforgettable narrative.