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King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett review – a heartfelt debut | Fiction

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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.”

Neblett has a good ear for the vernacular of Kai and his circle: letters from school make his mother “aggy as fuck”, and a self-important authority figure has “macky eyebrows and wobbles in his voice”. But Neblett’s prose is not always equal to the technical challenge of telling a story in a child’s voice. A room is “hot hot” and contains a “Tick tick ticking clock”. Kai “jump jump jumped” and runs “fast fast faster”. Food is “yum yum yummy”. Do children think like this? Perhaps – but so do authors short on inspiration. King of Rabbits is a heartfelt novel about poverty, race and inherited trauma, but at times these themes get lost in the haze of Kai’s perceptions – much like the adult world he only half-sees through the smoke-filled air of his home.

Matt Rowland Hill’s memoir Original Sins will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2022. King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett is published by William Heinemann (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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