Comedic descent into madness

23 February 2020 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times (23/02/2020)

Rabbits for Food ****
Binnie Kirshenbaum
Serpent's Tale, R290

"The dog is late and I'm wearing pajamas made from the same material as Handi Wipes, which is reason enough for me to wish I were dead."

So begins Binnie Kirshenbaum's acidly funny and deeply poignant new novel about a woman's plunge into depression and subsequent institutionalisation.

Bunny is a witty and successful writer in her 40s. Her mild husband, Albie, is a zoologist who works at the Natural History Museum in New York. She is clinically depressed and barely holding on when they agree to go out for dinner on New Year's Eve with longstanding friends. They are quintessential New York sophisticates and Kirshenbaum lampoons the scene with the skill of a young Tom Wolfe.

"Elliot is wearing his usual shaved head and black-frame eyeglasses. As a couple, Trudy and Elliot have got that whole Berlin minimalist thing down pat, although their daughter, who is seven, refuses to wear anything that isn't lavender, which they find ironic and amusing."

The dinner, through Bunny's jangled sensibility, is excruciating and she unravels so spectacularly that Albie has her at the psychiatric outpatient unit long before midnight strikes.

This is where we meet her in the beginning of the book, waiting in vain for the therapy dog. She refuses all drugs but signs up for various group therapies, and the "prompts" for the Creative Writing Course provide a lovely meta device for Bunny's background story to emerge. Her teacher, an MFA student, comments: "You are not without talent . You should think about becoming a writer."

Kirshenbaum is too respectful of the reader and of the condition of severe depression to provide a quick, happy-ever-after recovery for Bunny, but we find ourselves cheering her on as recovery begins. There is a great deal of compassion and sensitivity here, coated in a spoon of dry, knowing wit. @michelemagwood