Friday, October 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

It took me a few nights of steady reading, but I finally finished J.K. Rowling's new book, The Casual Vacancy. 

I want to preface this review with a few disclaimers.

1. I did not read any other reviews, either before or after reading this book, because I didn't want them clouding my own opinion. (I did accidentally notice that it got 3 stars on Amazon when I was looking for a new Kindle download.)

2. I will not let my feelings for Harry Potter affect my feelings for this book. I am already aware that no book could ever compare, so my expectations are are adjusted accordingly. But I am going to use my knowledge of Rowling's previous work to inform my thoughts on her current work.

I'm not going to synopsize the entire plot here, because it's incredibly complicated. Here's a simplified version:

The town of Pagford is divided over the issue of an adjacent housing project called the Fields, and a connected issue regarding the fate of a methadone lab that services many of the Fields' residents. The two issues are hotly debated in the Parish council, and two votes are forthcoming to allow the neighboring town to annex the Fields, and to withdraw the lease on the meth lab building. At the height of the debate, the Fields' most passionate supporter on the council, Barry Fairbrother, collapses of a heart attack. This is where the book begins. The rest of the book tells the stories of all the lives affected by Barry's death, the two Pagford issues, and the fight over the now-vacant Parish council seat. The cast of characters is vast and diverse, spanning from a bra-shop owner who tans too much and is obsessed with an American pop icon, to a very overweight, very prominent citizen of Pagford who is having a secret affair with his ugly (female) business partner, to an extremely troubled teenager, daughter of a heroin addict, whose goal is to be impregnated by the son of a rich family and be given a house of her own in the Fields. Those three characters are only the tip of the iceberg. Each member of the huge cast has quirks and foibles galore.

And here's what I think of the book:

If it wasn't for her name on the cover, I would not have known J.K. Rowling wrote this book. That's not meant to be a negative thing; it's just so far removed from her Harry Potter style that it's barely recognizable. I think that was probably the best tactic for her. The only common link I can think of between the two styes is that she shows, once again, her ability to handle a large cast and intricate web of storylines.

But The Casual Vacancy is incredibly dark. Wait, no, Harry Potter is dark too. I think I mean gritty. It almost seems like she went overboard trying to find explicitly adult themes and topics. The best example is the drug use in the book, which is widespread and very detailed. I now know a lot more about shooting up heroin than I'd ever wanted to.

The writing itself is also very different. I said in my initial thoughts about the new book, in my post Can Rowling Recapture the Magic? that she would need to grow-up her language a bit more, especially her descriptions- and she has.

The thing that surprised me the most is the lack of morality. This book is distinctly amoral. The ending is devastating- there's a huge loss without rhyme or reason. Harry Potter is all about morality: good and evil, right and wrong, making choices that have consequences. It surprised me that Rowling could write something so clearly opposite.

The huge differences between this book and Potter make me respect Rowling's ability even more than I previously had. However, I can't say I particularly liked the book. It was interesting, but it was long, and by the time I got about three-quarters of the way through, I started just wanting it to end. The characters are all interesting and well-formed, but none can be called likable. You need likable characters to get through a book that long.

So don't expect Harry Potter or anything remotely similar, but do expect a well-written, interesting story. Maybe you'll like some of the characters better than I did. Either way, it's worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished this the other day! I agree with your assessment of her ability to handle complex storylines and a large cast. But I felt somewhat differently about the characters. While I didn't particularly like any of the characters, I was struck by how well Rowling was able to make me feel like I knew them. That made me want to know what was going to happen to them(and in some cases, hope that they got what was coming to them!), and kept me reading steadily. Maybe that's just my personal reading style though.

    That said, while I was interested, I didn't feel the need to power through it in one night as I did with the Harry Potter books. Although thinking back, that kind of "buy it at midnight and finish it by morning" urgency really began after I had read the first few of those series and I was very familiar with the characters and stories. It actually took me quite awhile to get through the first Harry Potter.

    And the ending of Casual Vacancy shocked me- I think I actually gasped out loud at one point! No spoilers but it is definitely worth reading all the way through!