Karla Neblett’s debut novel, King of Rabbits will burst into the world on March 25th, 2021. It’s the lead debut title in 2021 for William Heinemann and I’m lucky enough to have received a proof copy in advance.
Raw, gritty, and uncompromising, King of Rabbits charts the story of Kai and his siblings, growing up on a Somerset council estate within a troubled family. Kai’s personality is energetic and imaginative and you can’t help but love him as he tries to make sense of a dysfunctional adult world, where he desperately wants his Mum and Dad to stop. Stop drinking, smoking, and using, so they will be present for him and his sisters. The adult ‘treasure chest,’ is full of drugs, and Kai witnesses his parents slide into addiction as the backdrop to his life. It’s puzzling, not startling to him.
Although the family is loving, addiction blanks out his Mum and Dad’s ability to parent. Kai yearns for his dad but is constantly let down.
This important novel explores the cycles of harm from addiction. Consequences are played out and shown in Kai’s behaviour, but there’s no preachiness. Parts of it are very funny. Neblett’s skill as a writer brings the situation to life with fresh, colloquial language, wicked dialogue, and acute observation. Her characters are fabulous and the plot builds up with a gentle suspense. Themes include racism, identity, and what family means. Kai’s dad is white and his mum is black and his sisters have different fathers. Nan is Nan to all the children, providing Kai and his sisters a strong role model even though she only has one grandchild.
King of Rabbits gives a voice to young working-class boys in a way that is fresh and powerful, that I for one, haven’t seen before – though perhaps My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son, or Barry Hine’s classic A Kestrel for a Knave might be referenced. I say a voice but it’s Kai’s inability to say what he thinks that makes this so tragic. As readers, we hear Kai’s thoughts, but the world doesn’t hear him speak, just interprets his bad-boy behaviour.
Don’t think of this as a heavy read, it’s also witty with a fabulous cast of minor characters such as Bob-cycle, Johnny the prawn, and Hippie-Mandy, but it’s the friendship between Kai and his best friend, Saffie, that form the emotional heartbeat of the book. Middledown Woods make a fabulous backdrop – growing up amongst nature and the freedom to roam isn’t something you might expect.
This book is so much bigger than any stereotypes you might attach to it. The writing is fluid and effortless. Neblett has a bright future as a writer ahead of her. I predict that this book is going to be huge.
Buy the novel from all good bookshops.