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05May

King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett review – a heartfelt debut

Family breakdown is observed from a child’s perspective in a novel about poverty, race and inherited trauma

Childhood is a state of absolute dependency, so what happens when a child’s caregivers are struggling with dependency of a different kind? Karla Neblett’s debut novel, King of Rabbits, tells the story of Kai, the fourth child in a mixed-raced family on a rural council estate, whose parents are sliding headlong into crack addiction. At five, Kai wants nothing more than to be the fastest sprinter at school and to hang out with the rabbits he loves because “they live in big families” and “have real feelings and look after each other”. But as the tale progresses his own family begins to fall apart like the glass pipe with “black gaffer tape wound round it” through which his mother and father smoke their “stinky stuff”.

Neblett is perceptive about the ways in which dysfunction is handed down through generations. When Kai is told off for getting into a playground scuffle, he discovers a glaring contradiction between official morality and that of his parents: “At home, if he pushed one of the girls, they pushed back … Dad said when someone pissed you off, you had it out.” However bad Kai’s domestic situation, the services charged with protecting him pose a greater threat; he has heard dark rumours “of kids getting taken away by horrible grownups” after which “they had to live with other families”. Even the protagonist’s sense of smell indicates his home is different from other local families: “Their houses smelled spicy and of pizza dough. Kai’s house always smelled like fags and burnt toast.” Kai finds relief in an affecting friendship with Saffie, and in the local woodland, where “Just before spring, starlings danced over the valley … Watching them made me feel I could fly too.”

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