The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty review – a riveting debut about love and cruelty

“On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only 18, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen,” begins The Rabbit Hutch. “The mystics call this experience the Transverberation of the Heart, or the Seraph’s Assault, but no angel appears to Blandine. There is, however, a bioluminescent man in his 50s.”

So whatever happens next, you know that debut author Tess Gunty can nail an opening. What happens next is the gradual, chronology-hopping revelation of who Blandine is, what the mystics have to do with anything, how a glowing middle-aged male got himself involved in all this, and why so many human lives (and one goat) have converged on this one horrible moment.

The main setting is the Rabbit Hutch itself, the apartment block where Blandine exits her body. Its proper name is La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex in the city of Vacca Vale, Indiana – a rust-belt relic of a place that, having outlived its usefulness to the motor industry, has been left to decay. Nothing but a scattering of incongruously grand buildings and a poisoned water table remain as testimony to the glory days of the Zorn automobile company.

Zorn is an invention, and so is Vacca Vale, but the broad details are recognisable to anyone who knows a little about the malaise of America’s post-industrial heartlands, and especially to anyone who has seen Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me, about the degradation of Flint, Michigan, after the withdrawal of General Motors. And to underline the parallel, Gunty opens her novel with an epigraph from that film.

The epigraph she chooses isn’t about economic decline, though, or the iniquities of capitalism. At least, not directly. It’s about rabbits, and it was spoken by Rhonda Britton, who was nicknamed “the bunny lady” after her appearance in the film. “If you don’t sell them as pets, you got to get rid of them as meat … If you don’t have 10 separate cages for them, then they start fighting. Then the males castrate the other males … They chew their balls right off.”

If that’s what happens to rabbits in a rabbit hutch, what’s going to be the result when you pack a bunch of humans into one? Gunty travels through the fraught consciousnesses that occupy the housing complex. The elderly bickering couple; the sadsack sixtysomething man who resents women with “an anger unique to those who have committed themselves to a losing argument”; the young mother who is terrified by her baby’s eyes, with their “shrewd, telepathic, adult accusation” of her failure to bond.

These are lives lived too close for comfort and too remotely for care, and it’s a model for everyone’s problem in this novel, which is populated by people like the young mother who both seek love and feel it as a terrible imposition on their own psyches. “People are dangerous because they are contagious,” thinks one man. “They infect you with or without your consent.”

That’s even more the case when you’re a woman, with the kind of body that’s made to be occupied. A pregnant woman imagines herself as a building and the foetus inside her as a developer: “Room by room, he demolished her body and rebuilt it into his own.” Blandine rails against the female condition: “Her body contains goods and services, and people will try to extract those goods and services without her permission.” Of course she dreams of making her escape.

This is a novel that is almost over-blessed with ideas. Gunty doesn’t quite balance the pieces of her story – she has a winning impulse for digression, but she also seems anxious that you might forget about Blandine, and so never quite settles into her sidebars. The insistent nudges back to the main arc stop her novel from creating the sense of invisible clockwork that would make it perfectly satisfying.

At its best, though, The Rabbit Hutch balances the banal and the ecstatic in a way that made me think of prime David Foster Wallace. It’s a story of love, told without sentimentality; a story of cruelty, told without gratuitousness. Gunty is a captivating writer, and if she learns to trust her own talent, whatever comes next will be even better.

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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