King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett

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Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

Imagine a teenager who skips school, smokes, drinks and disappears from his girlfriend on a regular basis; a young man adrift whose main interests are vandalizing unoccupied properties, doing drugs and stealing. Society rarely has much sympathy for these kinds of characters and tends to give up on them, branding them as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Karla Neblett makes it her goal to rectify this, taking time to listen to one such boy in her debut King of Rabbits.

Kai is a mixed-race, working class child living on a rural council estate with his parents and three sisters from nearly as many different fathers. The six-year-old Kai watches the adults around him smoke “funny pipes”, in a house littered with beer cans and dodgy characters. At the same time, he adores his dad and wants to learn to be a thief like him, he loves the pet rabbit at his school and creates imaginary worlds with his best friend Saffie, who he will marry and take to the moon.

Nine years later, Kai has grown into a deeply troubled teenager with his life spiralling out of control. He has a girlfriend he hates, a father in prison and worries too big to share. Neblett alternates between the now and then of Kai’s life, slowly revealing the pieces that are building into a tragedy in the present.

The narrative is cleverly crafted. The backdrop is a grimly grey one, but Neblett introduces glimmers of hope. There’s Kai’s Nanny Sheila, a guardian angel character in the form of a strong-willed, slightly eccentric woman, his sisters and their diverse personalities, and Hippie Mandy, a teacher who tries to help with mindfulness. Yet the darker tones keep darkening and Kai slides deeper into despair, and as the story unfolds in snippets from the past and the present, it creates a gripping structure. The novel’s greatest strength lies precisely in its depiction of how hopelessness can take over, even when from the outside all is not lost.

Neblett’s own father was semi-literate, and she has aimed to write a novel with a simple language that her brothers and father could read. For the most part this works: the prose flows without patronizing the reader and keeps them in its grip with snappy descriptions of people and places.

However, certain expressions are repeated to the extent that they become annoying and create a sense of clumsiness: Kai’s go-to feeling is “mixy” and things are repeatedly “yum yummy”.

The flow is also derailed by an onslaught of minor characters: many scenes are overcrowded with fleeting mentions of such-and-such standing in a certain place, without adding anything to the story. No simplification of language can help with the reader’s ensuing confusion of who’s who and why they are there. Another stumbling block is how the young Kai and Saffie are given lines in an overly clichéd child language seemingly at random: “you are my bestest friend” and “obbiously” alternate with a more standard way of speaking. The magic reality of their imaginary childhood worlds would come across even without veering into baby talk.

As such, King of Rabbits could have done with a round of polish and some pruning. However, even as it is, it’s a valuable description of one boy’s troubles and how easily people like him are misunderstood. It’s sharp psychological fiction like Neblett’s that can make a difference to real lives.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist

Karla Neblett, King of Rabbits (William Heinemann, 2021). 978-1785152481, 236pp., hardback.

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