Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Audiobook narrated by Tom Hollander
Description (Courtesy of goodreads.com):
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

My Thoughts (Warning: Contains Spoilers):

If there's anything that the Harry Potter novels have in common with J.K. Rowling's first adult novel , it's the quality of the writing. The language is fluid and brilliantly sets the tone, and creates a vivid setting of a town that feels like it's bigger than it probably is. The reader is introduced to so many characters in such a short span that even though I was a bit overwhelmed and nervous about being able to keep track of everyone, but it was surprisingly easy as the novel went on. The characters are distinct and Ms. Rowling does not shy away from any of the ugly details of their lives. Abusive husbands / fathers, prostitution, drug addicts.

The plot is where The Casual Vacancy does not particularly work for me. It kicks off when Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, passes away, leaving what is called a "casual vacancy." As inciting incidents go, it's compelling, but what follows does not adhere to the usual plot structure that readers expect. It all seems to be leading up to the election of Barry's successor on the Parish Council, which, when the successor is revealed, I was not compelled to feel a sense of catharsis. Similarly, when several children reveal the sins of community members (often their own parents) via the Parish Council Website using the pseudonym The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, instead of leading to a huge climax in which the town confronted its problems and decided (or refused) to make amends, it just gets cleaned up neatly without any sense of consequence, which left me asking "so what?"

Given how intricately Rowling plotted all seven of the Harry Potter novels, I was a bit disappointed here. I thought with a few hundred more pages she could probably have shown us a town undone by its own vices. Instead, we get more of a slice of life on a plate with no commentary.

"Yet what stands out to me is the writing. The character material is brilliant. I don't think there's a clear protagonist in this novel and I loved the way that Rowling balanced her characters in such a way that it didn't feel like there was one. When I was reading A Game of Thrones I made the enormous mistake of assuming that the first people I was introduced to were the protagonists. That's difficult to do in The Casual Vacancy, I think because of how quickly the reader is introduced to all of them. I got the sense that Krystal Weedon was at the center of the various plot lines, but she didn't feel like a protagonist to me.

I loved the way that Rowling created a firm sense of negative space left by Barry Fairbrother's passing. There was a great sense of mutual respect among the citizens of Pagford for Barry but he wasn't perfect. Even without the "Ghost" business, I was able to feel the sense of loss his death provoked.
I seem to recall that J.K. Rowling said that she had considered using a pseudonym when publishing this book and I'm glad that she didn't. The character of Simon Price, an abusive father to Andrew and Paul, and husband to Ruth made for an interesting comparison to Voldemort.

What interested me was how much more terrifying I found Simon than I found Voldemort. Part of this, I think, is that we actively witness Simon bullying people to exert his power in a way we don't really see with Voldemort. It may also be a bit of desensitization. Perhaps I can easily distance myself from a fictional sociopathic mass murderer in a way that I can't from a fictional abusive father/husband.  This is strengthened by the fact that we see Andrew, Paul, and Ruth afraid of Simon in a way we never really saw people being afraid of Voldemort.  Had Ms. Rowling published this novel under a pseudonym, I would not have made that connection.

All in all, I think there's a lot of interesting things in this novel, but the ending was a disappointment.
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