Book #20

King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett

Kai lives in a mixed-race family on a rural council estate in Somerset where he and his three older sisters have three different dads, and his mum is being led into crack addiction by his petty-thief father. He idolises his dad, adores his friend Saffie and the school rabbit Flopsy, and is full of ambition to be the fastest runner in Middledown Primary - like Linford Christie. He and Saffie build a secret world of friendship in the school garden. 
But Kai's natural optimism, imagination and energy run up against adult behaviour he doesn't understand: his parents' on-and-off romance, his dad's increasing addiction and the limitations of poverty. Despite the people who try to look out for him, notably his loving Nanny Sheila and his big sister Leah, Kai's life drifts towards a tragedy from which it is hard for him to recover. The refuge he seeks in his love of nature, and the wild rabbits who have made their burrows in the woods, may not be refuge enough.

Oh, Kai. My heart broke slowly throughout your story, beginning with little cracks growing bigger and bigger, until you made it crumble to dust entirely.

Neblett shows us Kai’s story through two timeframes - one as a child, and the other as a teenager. We see him growing up on a council estate, seeing things he shouldn’t, experiencing things he shouldn’t, and we’re allowed to see his child’s mind interpreting what’s going on around him. He creates worlds in his mind, plans his future with his best friend Saffie, makes everything magical with his imagination. Then, we see him older, more mature, yet irrevocably damaged. He knows what’s going on in his life, and he no longer turns to magic to escape.

The cruelties delivered to Kai through the circumstances of his life are unfair, and horrid. It’s clear through both narratives how these cruelties come to shape Kai’s understanding of the world, and his opinions of it. It’s an incredibly bleak, yet hopelessly realistic view of the lives of many. Despite falling in love with Kai, and hoping beyond hope he has the strength to fight the lessons his upbringing has taught him, there’s an overarching feeling that this boy has little to hope for.

Neblett’s writing style is a crucial and perfect voice for Kai. She presents us with the stark realities of his home life, and yet peppers through some humour and bright spots. She weaves, she hints, she sets out all the signs for us. We can only hope we’re able to read them properly - I couldn’t until the last minute, until it was all too late.

This is an important story because it focuses on the everyday, on the boys who grow up surrounded by poverty and drugs, who experience things at a young age which aren’t meant for little boys. I spoke briefly with Neblett, and she told me she just had to write this novel, as the stories of these boys are rarely told. And she’s absolutely right - we don’t speak about these horrors, we do little to stop them. How many boys have ended up like Kai? How many more?