It would be hard not to fall in love with this magic-tinged historical fiction. I loved this book so much I stayed up several nights to read it, refusing to bookmark it until I absolutely could not hold my eyes open any longer. The loss of sleep was worth it!
The White Hare is set in post-WWII England. The narrator, Mila, her daughter Janeska (Janey), and her mother Magdalena have left London and bought a large house in Cornwall, which Magda and Mila hope to refurbish and turn into a hotel. Mila also hopes the change of location will allow her to move on from a toxic relationship. Magda too has lost her husband of many years to the War and is seeking to rebuild a life for herself in a new place. The two women are Polish evacuees/refugees of the war; England is their home now.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that it will not be so easy to shed the past for the three of them; it comes back to haunt them in real and imagined ways. The house and land too that they see as their revival brings its own hauntings and histories into the present. This magic interacts with Mila, Janey, and Magda in positive and less-pleasant ways; it becomes clear there is something afoot at the house at White Cove.
The White Hare is not only a tale of magic and myth; what drew me back to its pages night after night was the deep, terrible past between Mila and Magda, the angry relationship between Janey and her grandmother, and the wedge and glue that comes into their lives, causing friction and connection all at the same time, in the form of another character, Jack. In many ways, this is a novel of intergenerational histories; the ways in which understandings of the self and our place in the world are inherited. That said, Johnson does not suggest that the past dictates the characters’ present or future; there is hope for change.
And there is plenty of change in this story. (The plot revolves around the revival of a place and its new denizens after all.) The novel is not a vehicle to retell history; it is much more subjective than that. This is a novel about how a group of people who have individually suffered ordinary and terrible events struggle to reconcile their pasts with their futures. Every one of the characters’ actions and choices are imbued with a history, sometimes a good one, often a tragic one. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses how the characters’ histories and their knowledge of another’s helps them shed those ghostly pasts and create a new future for themselves and each other.
The White Hare immerses the reader in a poignant lesson of how the past and present are ever intertwined. Lingering in the latent, vibrating background is the White Hare herself, a spirit that inhabits the land and the haunted history that comes alive in her presence. The novel suggests that there is a world beyond our own mundane one, in which we are embedded. In The White Hare this is the magical, historical world, a state of being in which the past and present are not constrained by the physics of time.
What was also very satisfying for me was the way in which the novel resolves. Not only do the characters come to their own organic conclusions, but history also is validated and finds a place of belonging in the present in a very real, tangible way. It emphasizes Johnson’s narrative: that the past is never as far away as it might seem, it is really buried — sometimes literally — in our contemporary moment. For readers who love long, nuanced resolutions and endings, The White Hare delivers in abundance; nothing is left hanging.
This is a novel that takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions, from sadness to anger to pity to redemptive hope. It is inspiring. It is queasy in some parts. Reader, be warned, there are mentions of abuse, gendered and sexual violence, violence and murder. Ultimately, for me, this was an inspiring tale of vindication and hope.