Christian mystics are a point of obsession for the hero of Tess Gunty’s debut novel. “They were spectacularly unusual,” Blandine gushes early in The Rabbit Hutch. They loved suffering, she says. “Mad for it.”
She’s especially interested in Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, polymath, composer and doctor who constantly played up her femininity to make herself less of a threat to male members of the clergy. As the novel opens, we learn that Blandine, inspired by her 12th-century hero, will “exit her body.”
But before readers fall in step with Blandine’s miraculous, possibly ominous ascension, Gunty first draws us into the years leading up to this event, and into the world of the Rabbit Hutch (officially called La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex), an apartment building in Vacca Vale, Indiana.
A Midwestern crossroads that’s limping along after the collapse of the Zorn Automobiles empire, Vacca Vale is a fictional stand-in for South Bend. In a matter of decades, Midwestern gloom has slipped into doom, and like many small towns, Vacca Vale (which is Latin for “goodbye, cow!”) has been earmarked for a heavily marketed “revitalization plan,” which everyone knows translates to “demolishing your town’s one great thing and replacing it with luxury condos.”
Blandine is our guiding light as we navigate this darkening mood. A former foster kid who’s now living in the Rabbit Hutch with three roommates, Blandine is a daring, defiant young woman who’s searching for divinity with scorching ferocity. Despite her persistence, she has not gone unscathed: She dropped out of high school after a complicated, crushing relationship with her charismatic theater teacher, and Gunty’s navigation of this trauma is one of the novel’s quietest strengths. Blandine’s experience is nothing less than a catastrophe hemmed in on all sides by the forces of normalization. After all, as she points out, a 17-year-old girl is considered to be within the age of consent by the state of Indiana.
Blandine is the core of The Rabbit Hutch, but if she were a cathedral, her two flying buttresses would be Joan and Moses. Joan, a lonely older woman who also lives in the Rabbit Hutch, is employed by an obituary website. Her job is to delete comments that disparage the dead, so she must remove a response from Moses on his mother’s obituary. (“THIS WHOLE #OBITUARY IS A BOLD-FACED LIE,” his comment begins.) To punish Joan for this act of censorship, Moses flies to Vacca Vale to exact his special form of retribution: He will cover himself from head to toe in the goo found in glow sticks, break into Joan’s apartment and dance around in the dark to frighten her.
Alongside these three characters, we hear from a bunch of additional folks, and as Gunty introduces each new voice, she makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have. She draws us along with rapturous glee while layering her symbolism so thick that the story should, by all rights, drown in it. But The Rabbit Hutch never loses focus thanks to Blandine, who has a kind of literary superpower: She’s aware of her place in the story, points out Gunty’s metaphors, arches a brow at the symbols and has something to say about all of it. This isn’t to suggest that the novel’s fourth wall is broken, but it does feel wafer-thin, just as the veil between the divine and the corporeal seem as gauzy as a worn T-shirt.
“We’re all just sleepwalking,” Blandine says to Joan. “I want to wake up. That’s my dream: to wake up.” As she moves toward wakefulness, Blandine becomes no less than a bona fide contemporary mystic, cultivating her own sense of belief and solidifying her existence as vital enough to subsist. Redemption is possible, and Gunty’s novel consecrates this noble search.