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    In Mona Awad’s ‘Bunny,’ an M.F.A. program is the devil’s workshop

    globe staff photo illustratiob; adobe stock

    It’s Samantha’s own fault that she’s been bitten, but never mind. Racing to the hospital for a rabies shot, she isn’t the only one looking a tad gruesome.

    Behind the wheel of the car, so is Bunny, “her face and her dress splattered here and there with bits of blood even though she’d worn her axing apron.” This, too, is pretty much Samantha’s fault, and Bunny is miffed — because, really, their evening didn’t have to involve so much slaughter.

    Calming down, she addresses Samantha peer to peer. In the field they’ve chosen, there are rules, and the rules are meant to keep them safe.

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    “Just remember, please,” Bunny says, “that Creation is a heavy responsibility. And the Work, though necessary, though vital, though cutting edge, is also volatile, dangerous, not at all to be taken lightly,” 

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    They are, of course, fiction writers. And in Mona Awad’s brilliant, bristling dark satire, “Bunny,” things get gory when they have to kill their darlings — not just lines of prose but actual creatures they’ve magicked into being with the roiling, formidable power of their imaginations.

    You would guess none of this from looking at the Bunnies, which is what Samantha calls them. At Warren University — an Ivy League school whose scruffy town is “named after a godly gesture of gratitude and fate,” and which looks a lot like Providence, where Awad got her M.F.A. at Brown — there are only five people in their class in the graduate fiction program.

    As the book opens, at the start of their second year at Warren, the other four of them are reunited in a snug little clique: a cooing, cuddling, pretty-pastel bunch of pampered child-women who address one another as Bunny. They habitually recoil from the anger they feel in Samantha’s writing, and from the outsider energy she radiates.

    She, in return, hoards a contempt that’s palpable in her secret nicknames for them: Cupcake, whose prettiness “reminds you of frosting flourishes,” and whose prose is just as twee ; the baby-voiced Creepy Doll, who spins “fairy tales about girl demons” ; Vignette, a onetime ballerina whose shock-value stories feature “Disney princesses engaged in blood orgies” ; and the Duchess, the richest and most cryptic of them, who writes what she cringe-inducingly, unbearably, calls “proems.”

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    To Samantha’s private horror, she longs for acceptance from this bunch. The yearning is so fervent that when they invite her to what they call their Smut Salon, she’s embarrassed even to mention it to her best friend, the loyal Ava, an art-school dropout and thrift-shop romantic who swaggers through poverty with a lot more elegance than Samantha does.

    Even more shamefully, when the Bunnies warm to her, Samantha ditches Ava for a life of kitten-print dresses, face glitter, Pinkberry, and the most adorable miniature food. Once they let her all the way into their circle — they call her Bunny then, too — she joins in an ongoing series of creative experiments involving axes, exploding skulls, and sometimes a copious amount of blood. All, naturally, in the name of female empowerment.

    To say too much about the experiments would dull the pleasure of the joke that Awad (“13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl”) is making. But as one of the Bunnies explains, tossing around just the right pretentious blather: “This is about the Body. Performing the Body.” If the Bunnies have to conjure bodies out of the ether, lumpish imperfections and all, so be it.

    With visuals so vivid, and a plot so weird and gripping that it’s already been snapped up to be made into a TV series, “Bunny” is a summer book, an escapist comedy, a beach read that you’ll want to pass around. But that’s only partly because it’s rollickingly, laugh-out-loud funny. What makes it memorable, and powerful, is the coupling of its go-for-broke sendup with an immense compassion for the person Samantha turns out to be. For all its dagger-sharpness, “Bunny” has a tenderly accommodating heart.

    Samantha went to Warren because she needed to focus on her writing, but she can’t shake her feeling of alienation. The sole faculty member she used to count on for human warmth, a Scot she thinks of as the Lion, is mysteriously distant to her now, and only one other student, a sweet, screwed-up poet named Jonah, is consistently nice to her. Broke and lonely, with her mother dead and her father on the lam from who knows what seedy trouble, she has a tiny, grim apartment and no place that feels like home.

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    Except, that is, for her imagination. When she was a child, her mother used to worry about it: the ease with which Samantha preferred lying to the truth, the tenacity with which she clung to make-believe.

    Now her fantasies feed her work, and if she can figure out how to tap them at will, to harness them properly, they might be her means to the kind of sun-kissed existence that the Bunnies take for granted. But she has to learn not to get too attached.

    Fictional darlings have minds all their own. When they get unwieldy, it’s time for them to die.

    BUNNY

    By Mona Awad

    Viking, 305 pp. $26

    Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.