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‘The Rabbit Hutch’: ND alumna Tess Gunty’s celebrated novel

When I told my friend about “The Rabbit Hutch” winning the National Book Award, she naturally asked me what the book is about.

I grasped around for words but instead, vivid scenes flashed before my eyes. Voodoo dolls dropping from the ceiling, a white-haired girl obsessing over Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic mystic and a son of a celebrity breaking into the homes of his enemies covered in nothing but glow-stick fluid. I finally said something like “It’s about four foster kids in a dying Midwestern town.”

But that description and even the more elegant one author Tess Gunty provides in various interviews — “a novel that follows a group of characters in a post-industrial city called Vacca Vale as their lives violently collide one summer night” — can’t begin to condense the expansive eccentricity of this novel. 

Vacca Vale, the fictional town in Indiana where the novel is set, draws inspiration from Rust Belt towns like South Bend, where Gunty grew up. Vacca Vale was once home to Zorn, a large automobile company not unlike Studebaker, and the town left behind in its wake is riddled with unemployment and un-walkability. The novel follows the lives of different residents of Rabbit Hutch, an affordable housing complex. 

Blandine, an eighteen-year-old who just aged out of the foster care system, is the novel’s most interesting character. She contemplates using ‘amaranthine’ in a sentence and going down the rabbit hole of fiduciary law as she tweezes her leg hair. When she confronts her abuser, she gives him a Marxist reading of the power imbalance in their relationship, even as the interaction leaves her shaking and distraught. She is “so tired of contorting her emotions to fit her principles” and the fact that Blandine’s angst, sensitivity and intellectualism are not at odds with each other makes her feel utterly real. 

Though Blandine is at the heart of the novel, the true protagonist is the town itself: Vacca Vale. The polyphonic form allows us to inhabit the lives of different residents of the town like the lonely woman who moderates an obituary website and a former Zorn technician and his wife who constantly snipe at each other. All of these stories, though they may not have much significance to the plot, add to a rich depiction of the emotional terrain of the post-industrial Midwest — and it’s definitely not flat. 

Gunty’s metaphors capture these subtle but palpable emotions. To describe a character getting defensive when posed with incriminating information she writes, “she can see his body turning off the lights, drawing the curtains, locking itself up.” Others are jigsaw puzzle pieces of language like “the booze and weed deconstructed Todd’s room, rebuilt it into some kind of boat. I swayed.” They click together satisfyingly when you understand them. 

In general, the novel is more like a collection of scenes that reveal the soul of a multifaceted town than a story with a definitive resolution. Particularly with Blandine’s arc, there is a tantalizing cliffhanger that I was wondering about for nearly half of the book that was ultimately left up to interpretation. To quote Blandine (in a very different context), “my brain is addicted to the unresolved,” and I am still trying to figure out the motives of certain characters.

However, to read “The Rabbit Hutch” is not to interrogate the relevance of each chapter but to savor its poetic prose and marinate in Gunty’s intriguing ideas about Catholicism, effective altruism, orphanhood and the extraction economy.

Title: The Rabbit Hutch

Author: Tess Gunty

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

If you liked: “All This Could Be Different” by Sarah Thankam Mathews, “NW” by Zadie Smith

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5