Thursday, October 4, 2012

THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling


THE GIST:

A small town battles through rivalries, resentments and a myriad of secrets under the guise of a parish council election.

THE VERDICT:

The town of Pagford is an insular community dominated by "old guard" middle-class residents who have lived there for generations. The Fields, a neighborhood of low-income housing within its borders, seems to be the only thing disrupting the comfort of the little hamlet. But Pagford and its residents are anything but idyllic. Wrapped up in secrets, discontent and agendas in their personal lives, they fight over whether to cut loose the projects and force out a clinic for heroin addicts. When the chief advocate for the Fields dies suddenly, the various townspeople use the election for his replacement to maneuver for revenge, power and absolution. With stakes that get higher at every turn, especially for a fiery 16-year-old girl who lives in the Fields, this novel is full of the gray areas and conflicts that make up modern life.

The Casual Vacancy strikes me as a brave novel. It does not shy away from tough issues in the face of its guaranteed-to-be-huge audience. Characters struggle with abuse, adultery, mental illness, addiction, rape, depression and more. At times it feels like the author had a checklist of all the difficult, sad, adult things a person could experience and included all of them. The interpersonal conflicts are universal and revealing, but the novel also addresses the social situation in Britain quite directly. Class, addiction and welfare feature prominently; I likely don't have a full grasp of how these topics are typically treated in the UK, but Rowling was not terribly sympathetic toward her middle-class characters. Nevertheless, I felt that the novel was insightful, daring and thought-provoking, albeit rather sad.

As a first generation Harry Potter fan (got the first two books for my 11th birthday), I was predisposed to like JK Rowling's first foray into the non-HP book world. Although the mood and themes of The Casual Vacancy were entirely different, I recognized Rowling's ability to engage readers from the first page and keep them wrapped up in a world that might seem inconsequential from the outside. The thing that struck me most about Rowling as a writer was her ability to create vivid, believable characters. After growing so used to her HP characters, it was interesting to see her breathing life into entirely new ones. The people in this novel are flawed, nuanced and sometimes even despicable, and no one comes out of the story looking like a hero. Even so, Rowling's writing style is as engaging as ever, and there was an exciting feeling of experimentation about the book. It goes without saying that this isn't a story for kids, but if you grew up with JK Rowling and are eager to tackle some of the painful, difficult parts of the world through her lens, then I highly recommend The Casual Vacancy.

THE LINK:

JK Rowling's author website

THE COST:

The Kindle edition is a shocking $17.99, so I decided to buy the physical copy (which was imported and significantly more expensive, but at least I can lend it to people).

THE QUESTION:

Do you think Rowling went overboard in making this novel "too adult"? What do you think about there being no true "hero" character in this novel?

8 comments:

  1. Is the book too adult? (spoilers to Harry Potter)

    To me I realised that even though Harry Potter is a magical fantasy universe - revisiting it after this book you see that JK Rowling had to hold restraint over herself to keep character descriptions child friendly...

    The best way to describe that is that I think that her ability to despise the Dursley's could have come out as "A man so fat you immediately thought about his penis - how he washed it, used it, when he had last seen it" as she has this in her arsenal but showed restraint - here she is able to let her full flood gates of literary hatred onto Howard Mollison, despising him using her full vernacular.

    So I don't think she tried to make this too adult, rather really tried to prevent the Harry Potter's as not too adult.

    That said she killed Hedwig and Fred - so she didn't hold back too much :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment Josh. I agree that you can look back and see restraint in her children's books. At the same time, she does incorporate death and darker themes in Harry Potter, so this doesn't feel like a total departure. Even in her fantasy universe, she's always been concerned with reality, grief and believable human relationships. Like you said, she's clearly had it in her from the beginning.

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  2. I must be the only person alive who doesn't like the HP books but I love "the casual vacancy" She seems to me to have captured village life well. My UK home is in a rural village and I sat on the local community council for a while, so this book spoke to me! No hero is fine, we don't meet heroes everyday and this was about everyday life.

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  4. Oops I posted the same comment twice!

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  5. I love it! I am a huge fan of the book and I'm so glad you made this of Pagford - its the kind of attention the book deserves. I love it!

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  6. While this book received mixed reviews from professional critics, it was an interesting view of English law. Language was a bit over the top and unnecessary. Perhaps it was the author's way of separating from children's books. I would recommend it.

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