What would the UK look like if, 55 years ago, a mysterious event caused rabbits to become human-sized, intelligent and adopt the fashions of Beatrix Potter books? For Jasper Fforde, that world doesn’t look too different from the one we’re in now. Sure, there are a few changes – classic novels have been translated into “rabbity” and military recruit rabbits get hazed by finding carrots and copies of Watership Down in their bunks – but the core aspects of society remain, depressingly, much the same.
If this all sounds a bit outlandish and surreal it might come as a surprise to learn that The Constant Rabbit is Jasper Fforde’s most chilling and realistic book yet.
The UK author is well known for his alternative history novels that take a satirical and skew-eyed look at society. He spent 12 years receiving rejection upon rejection for his manuscripts until in 2001 his debut novel, The Eyre Affair – a book that centres around a literary detective tasked with finding and returning Jane Eyre, who has disappeared from the pages of her own book – was released and rapidly became a bestseller. Since then, Fforde has been consistently building worlds that look almost but not quite like ours, with pop culture references, historical twists and social commentary throughout.
On The Constant Rabbit, “It’s kind of about one thing but it’s about another,” the author says with a small smile. “I mean, it’s about anthropomorphised rabbits living in the UK and how weird is that? But it’s [also] about otherism and discrimination. It’s about complicity. It’s about someone coming to terms with their leporiphobia [fear of rabbits], and how somebody perhaps thought they were a good guy and then had to re-examine themselves and their country and their government in the light of what was invisible to them but is now seemingly obvious.”
The Constant Rabbit is, on the surface, fun and slightly bonkers. The story centres around Peter Knox, a (human) single father who works for a government agency overseeing crimes committed by the sentient rabbit population with whom humans now live. Most people can’t tell rabbits apart but Peter can, so his skills are employed to recognise and take down rabbits committing crimes – though, for rabbits, the definition of what constitutes a crime is a lot more broad than it is for humans. Peter doesn’t have a problem with rabbits, though he tries to not think too deeply about the ramifications of his work.
Fforde’s love of wordplay, cultural references and silliness shines through in every sentence. Famous rabbits from film and television get a look in, from Harvey to Bugs Bunny, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm is given a strong homage, with the main group of anti-rabbit thugs known as TwoLegsGood. The governing party is UKARP, led by a Nigel Smethwick. There are multiple references to Rick Astley. “Rick Astley? Oh, he only gets two mentions! No! He gets three, doesn’t he?” exclaims Fforde when I ask about it. (Brace yourself for more of what Fforde has dubbed “textual Rickrolling” – he has vowed to have Astley references in every book he writes from now on.)
Beneath the fun, the horror quietly unfolds. The rabbits are watched carefully by security whenever they enter a shop, banned from reading certain books, mocked for their language and prevented from attending university. People call them “bunny” – a now-offensive term. And then there’s the MegaWarren, a place built with the intention of containing the entire anthropomorphised rabbit population. “I started off with the idea that it was going to be a wall but rabbits had to pay for it,” Fforde says. “You know, ho ho, very topical.”
Fforde frequently explores social hierarchies in his books: in Shades of Grey people are ranked based on the colours they’re able to see; in Early Riser they are divided by whether or not they hibernate through winter. Feedback from readers of The Constant Rabbit has suggested it’s having some impact. “People have said that … what I’m saying happens to rabbits, they’re suddenly thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, we do that to people,’” Fforde says. “And it sounds like they hadn’t actually thought of that before – that when it’s said about rabbits it’s funny, but when you say it about humans it’s not funny at all.”
He agrees that it’s often easier to generate empathy, and more palatable to get messages across, through silliness and satire. Fforde isn’t interested in being “soap boxy”, he says; his primary goal is to entertain. But: “There’s this thing with authors which is so grand and so pompous … that when you’re writing fiction you’re trying to slightly improve a flawed world.”
Fforde’s characters are often quietly complicit in a flawed system. “Being a peripheral small cog, I think, is quite a good place to be,” he explains. “You are within this machine – and you can see the machine is dysfunctional.”
He says while the protagonist in The Constant Rabbit is redeemable, “he’s not a good person, although he thinks he’s a good person because he’s comparing himself to other people – and I think that’s what we do in real life. The ‘real’ racists out there, we think we can see them – and then we compare ourselves to the very worst excesses and all of a sudden we’re ‘OK’, and I think Peter does this.”
Fforde says he was conscious, in the writing, of making sure he was taking aim at the right people. “I’m clearly a part of the privileged class and I’ve never been discriminated against, not ever. Not ever. Not once. And that’s not something that’s shared with my fellow British people or any people.
“The hardest thing for me with The Constant Rabbit was, where do you draw the line? ... You’re talking about discrimination, when does it become frivolous? When are you making jokes not in support of dealing with this issue but jokes at these issues?”
Fforde has quiet hopes for The Constant Rabbit. “First and foremost I hope it entertains. I hope people will smile when they read it – and when they’re finished reading it they will perhaps frown a little bit and think, ‘OK, is there anything else I could do?’ … A lot of people doing a little can actually bring about huge changes.”
• The Constant Rabbit is out now through Hodder & Stoughton