ANDREW FFRENCH delves into our latest Book of the Month with Sarah Winman’s first published novel.

* THE BOOK: WHEN God Was A Rabbit has already enjoyed extraordinary success for a debut novel and Sarah Winman is being compared to David Nicholls, the author of One Day, and Oxford’s Mark Haddon, who struck publishing gold with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Winman tells the seemingly run-of-the-mill story of Elly and her brother Joe and how they grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in Essex and Cornwall.

The author wanted the novel to have the feel of a memoir, so it is narrated by Elly.

Winman juxtaposes chatty dialogue and Elly’s matter-of-fact tone with some major themes – life, death, the existence of God and the random nature of terrorist attacks.

The first half of the story is set in the 1960s and 1970s, while the second half begins in the mid-1990s, revisiting the characters once they have grown up.

Without wanting to spoil the plot for readers, any summary of the book would be incomplete without mentioning that the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York dominates the second section of the novel.

The inclusion of 9/11 has divided readers, with some feeling that the terrorist attack destroys the novel’s feelgood factor and humorous nature.

But Winman defends her right to involve her characters in the real-life tragedy, and explains in an author’s note: “That 9/11 is written about in this book has drawn sharp intakes of breath from some people, total acceptance from others, and outright criticism further afield.

“I understand all reactions, but never felt myself that I didn’t have the right to write about this moment, as some people have suggested.

“But with writing about such a traumatic historic event comes huge responsibility, and I knew that the only way through was to be guided by respect and honesty, and so I wrote my own story of that day.

“It was exactly as it is written in the book.”

The author adds that this is “not a book about 9/11”, but a “homage to family, to relationships, and to love in all its forms”.

Winman takes a big risk as a writer by giving this suburban family saga a real-life backdrop punctuated with the political bombings of the 1970s, the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana, and ultimately the carnage of 9/11.

In the wrong hands, this combination could have been incredibly off-putting, but Winman does not step in to offer comment or judgment and simply lets her characters react.

There are, however, some passages in the novel which left me feeling a little uneasy.

If you are going to tackle the subject of child abuse, it seems a strange decision to involve throwaway humour, but Winman’s writing is so assured she just about gets away with it.

When God Was a Rabbit has already built up a huge following but it has all the right ingredients to become an even bigger publishing sensation.

The voice of Elly is captivating throughout the novel and stays in your head long after you have finished the last page.

She, and Winman, may well have talked themselves into Hollywood.

Handled in the right way, the novel could make the journey from page to screen and play well on both sides of the Atlantic.

* THE AUTHOR SARAH Winman grew up in Essex and attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

She then went on to act in theatre, film and television.

In recent years, she thought she would try writing fiction after going to an adult education centre in London called City Lit, where she took a course called Exploring Fiction.

Although the course focused on studying literature rather than writing it, Winman found herself writing a novel and with it she secured a literary agent.

This story wasn’t published but the experience gave her the confidence to try again and the result was When God Was a Rabbit, which was published by Headline in March.

The debut has been number five in The Sunday Times bestseller list and is one of the debut titles that Waterstone’s is highlighting this year. Richard and Judy have also picked the story for their summer book club.

When God Was a Rabbit has so far been published in 22 countries, including 16 in Europe, as well as the United States, China, Brazil, Israel and Korea.

An actor for 23 years, Winman had always enjoyed writing, but it was not until she joined the City Lit course that her talent as a fiction writer emerged.

Winman usually writes from 10.30am until 6pm and her aim is to complete 1,000 words per day.

She believes that rewriting is the “key to success and failure” and has plotted out an ending for both her books before writing the first chapters.

Some of Winman’s characters, however, join “along the way” and she considers her writing style to be her “fingerprint”.

The author has revealed that she read “voraciously” when she was writing When God Was a Rabbit and added that each book she read seemed to provide an answer to a problem that was holding up her own story.

Her advice to other writers is to “be in love with your story and your characters, and stay committed”.

* When God Was a Rabbit is published by Headline, is priced £7.99 but you can get it for half price at Waterstone’s in Oxford and Witney with the voucher available in the Oxford Mail's weekly entertainment supplement The Guide.