Tess Gunty’s debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, is a character-driven marvel. In beguiling chapters that alternate points of view, Gunty, who lives in Los Angeles, details a single week in the life of a teenage girl named Blandine. The novel takes place in Vacca Vale, Indiana: an “American blemish—one of those disposable, expired towns.” Blandine is a former foster child who’s recently aged out; she lives in a run-down apartment complex called the Rabbit Hutch with three others in her situation: Todd, Jack, and Malik. All four struggle to feel human connection in a world that has shuffled them around. There are other damaged souls, like Moses Robert Blitz, the only child of a recently deceased actress, and Joan Kowalski, who is paid to monitor comments on restinpeace.com.
The Rabbit Hutch, then, is a collage of voices, which reminds us that everyone is facing their own problems and conflicts. “Three teenage boys,” Gunty writes of Apartment C4, where Blandine lives. “One teenage girl. A stranger. A goat. A neighbor. Curdled plans. Punishment.”
One floor away, Joan lives her solitary life; she’s irked by her young neighbors, who are noisy and off. Neither she nor the other residents of the complex know that Blandine was born Tiffany Watkins; obsessed with Christian mystics, she changed her name to identify with “Blandine of Lyon: patron saint of servant girls, torture victims, and those falsely accused of cannibalism.”
Neither do they know what the boys in C4 have started to do. “The animal sacrificing,” Jack reports, “began when we all fell in love with Blandine.”
Gunty does a fine job planting plenty of disturbing seeds throughout her narrative. In addition to the sacrifices, she details Blandine’s obsession with feeling something—anything—resembling security, as well as reminds us that, by the end of the novel, Blandine will leave her body. As to what that means exactly, it’s left open to question. Is it a kind of death or something else? The fact that Gunty couches this in the language of mysticism makes it even more elusive. And haunting.
Each character in The Rabbit Hutch must deal with sin and guilt and transference. But Gunty also pushes deeply into the existence, and the ethics, of evil. What if we could transfer our neuroses, our moral failings into one another? This kind of contagion emerges in both the parent-child relationships and the romances.
Moses, for instance, struggles with the fallout of a difficult relationship with his mother, even after her death. On occasion, Gunty tells us, he “paints his entire body with the liquid of broken glow sticks, forcibly enters the house of an enemy, and wakes the enemy. Then he flails around in the dark, naked and aglow.… He is fifty-three years old.” To him, this is not a matter of choice but rather of necessity. “If you collide with someone, you must be prepared to live inside their psychology indefinitely,” he thinks, “and this is the burden of a lifetime.”
While he metes out revenge with “glow stick liquid,” Joan keeps her life conflict clear.
As Gunty builds to an apex of action, she plays with the formats of her narrative. Sometimes she uses lists; sometimes, the text from a private school test interspersed with hallway gossip. In places, there are mysterious drawings. Blandine’s behavior and expectations, meanwhile, are shaped by otherworldly language.
“The agony is sweet,” Gunty writes, “as the mystics promised. It’s like your soul is being stabbed with light, the mystics said, and they were right about that, too. The mystics call this experience the Transverberation of the Heart, or the Seraph’s Assault, but no angel appears to Blandine.”
Gunty wants us to question not just what we owe one another in moments of crisis, but also how we create crises in our daily lives. At the same time, she explores the dichotomy between what is actual and what is observable—between reality and narrative, in other words. “I could tell you the facts,” Jack explains, “or I could tell you how it felt, but I doubt any of it will give you the explanation you want.” In some ways, neither perspective is entirely complete, or correct.
This is fiction that feels completely new while also pulling together dark impulses and base instincts that are familiar to every one of us. Gunty is doing a lot, and it’s all working. The Rabbit Hutch is a singular and piercing story.•