Anuja Varghese Reviews Mona Awad's Bunny

Mona Awad.  Bunny . Hamish Hamilton. $29.95, 320 pp., ISBN: 9780735235885

Mona Awad. Bunny. Hamish Hamilton. $29.95, 320 pp., ISBN: 9780735235885

“Oh, Bunny, I love you.”

“I love you, Bunny.”

Welcome to Warren, the fictional Ivy League university where Mona Awad sets her darkly funny and disturbingly vivid new novel, Bunny. From the moment we are introduced to the manicured campus and the moneyed students who roam it, like feral woodland creatures carrying designer handbags, it becomes clear that Awad has invited us into a fairy-tale space where anything is possible. But this is not the family-friendly stuff of Disney movies; it is decidedly more Brothers Grimm. 

On its surface, Bunny tells the story of Samantha Mackie, an outsider at Warren, who has been accepted into the school’s oh-so-prestigious MFA program. The other women in her fiction cohort are an unbearably pretentious group of four who have become just the very best of friends, who constantly hug and groom each other, and of course, who call each other Bunny. 

Along with her best friend, Ava, Samantha mocks the Bunnies from a distance, bestowing each with a fitting nickname, and confirming how much she truly hates them, how much she really does not want to be like them, or at least, be liked by them. Really, truly, not at all. Until one day, she is invited to join their Smut Salon, where they are taking performance art to whole new, horrifying levels. And from there, everything goes to hell in Little Red Riding Hood’s hand basket. 

Bunny’s real strength lies in its layers. Just beneath the fast-moving plot, the novel offers a scathing critique of academia at its most elite, taking aim at the privilege in which it remains ensconced, the power dynamics between students and faculty, and the desire bordering on desperation to be better than the rest, to be extraordinary. At any cost. Here, Awad’s prose rarely misses: “Behold the white people in black discussing grants they earned to translate poets no one reads from the French. Behold the lavish tent under which the overeducated mingle, well versed in every art but the one of conversation. Smilingly oblivious to the fact they are in the mouth of hell.” Samantha’s observations ring with sharp truth and wry humour, an underlying commentary that draws us into the world of Warren, while at the same time, warning us to run far, far away. 

Another layer within Bunny explores the relationships between women — the affection, savagery and competition that can all merge together therein. The Bunnies themselves are the feminine taken to extremes; both giggling, lip-glossed schoolgirls, and also, malicious, concupiscent (read: horny) vixens. Through the Bunnies, Awad gives us the carnal, the cruel, the too cute for words, and the downright crazy, all wrapped up in pretty paper with a sparkly bow on top. Ava, meanwhile, represents all that the Bunnies are not. About Ava, Samantha says, “I look at her different-coloured eyes, her bleached and feathery hair that is the antithesis of Bunny hair, cut asymmetrically and shaved in places, her fishnet veil that she wears like a threshold to be crossed only if you dare.” And then there is Samantha herself, caught in the middle, lonely until she is not, grasping for something real, and coming up instead, with a mini cupcake in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other. The violent and the twee, side by side, in all their glitter and gore. If nothing else, the women who make Bunny such a riveting read will stay with you long after you’ve put the book down, even if you’d rather they didn’t.

Throughout Bunny, Awad seamlessly blends pop culture references with gorgeous archetypal imagery — a string of emoji-ridden texts followed by rich, lyrical prose that reinforces the dream-like world of the novel. Or maybe it’s all a nightmare. This is a book you may finish and find yourself asking, what the hell just happened? You may go back, looking for breadcrumbs you missed along the way. It is not a story for the faint of heart. It is, however, unlike anything you’ve read before. It dares to ask, if you could conjure your deepest, truest, most secret desires into being, what would they look like? And what would they see when they looked back at you?

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Anuja Varghese is a writer based in Hamilton, ON. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Malahat Review, Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Folklore & Fairy Tales, So To Speak, Southern Humanities Review, and others. Her work was previously longlisted for the PRISM International Short Fiction Prize, shortlisted for the Pigeon Pages 2019 Fiction Contest, and took third prize in the 2019 Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition. Anuja holds a degree in English Literature from McGill University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto while working on a collection of short stories. Anuja can be found on Instagram (@anuja_v) and Twitter (@Anuja_V).