Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review - The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy   J.K. Rowling     11/25/2012   * * * *

From Goodreads:

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 façade 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:
I want to start right away by saying that I quite enjoyed The Casual Vacancy, even though it's been months since I read it and I've been so very slow in writing a review.  The delay is not because the novel was bad.  But it has been difficult for me to sort out my thoughts about this novel.  And sometimes it was a difficult novel to read.

The story revolves around a group of residents of the small town of Pagford, some adults, some teenagers.  On the surface, the town seems idyllic and perfect, simple and peaceful.  But simmering just below the surface are tensions and hatreds and hurts and loves and desires and secrets; all things that people try to hide from their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  Barry Fairbrother's death in a parking lot acts as a catalyst, bringing all the hidden emotions and feelings to the surface, and leads to a devastating turn of events that no one could have foreseen.

While that description is correct, and sounds exciting, The Casual Vacancy is not a past-paced exciting novel.  It is, instead, a very quiet, character driven story of regular, ordinary, everyday people living their lives and dealing with the regular, ordinary, everyday things that happen in life.  Adults worry about their jobs, and what their neighbors might be saying about them, and what their kids are getting up to in school, and wonder how to make their lives better, happier, and more tolerable.  The teenagers go to school and worry about whether they will survive the day, or what form of bullying will affect them today, or how to continue without their favorite teacher.  They steal smokes, have sex in in the cemetery, try to keep their mother from overdosing, and cut themselves in the middle of the night because that's the only thing they have control over.

This is where J.K. Rowling really shines - her teenagers are brilliant, and were easily my favorite characters in the story.  A great deal of the drama in the novel revolves around the younger characters, and they are affected by it more strongly, partly, in my opinion, because they have less control of their own lives, and are left at the mercy of the adults around them.

The Casual Vacancy deals, or touches on, quite a few very serious subjects.  Drug use, rape, child neglect, teen sex, cutting, bullying, and domestic violence are all among the things that various characters deal with in their daily lives, and J.K. Rowing handles these very serious subjects with a grace and delicacy that is astonishing, while at the same time forcing the reader to look head-on at the horror of these situations and truly feel the pain and anguish the characters feel.

All of this is described with the authors very familiar style of prose, or at least, familiar to those of us who have spent years reading the Harry Potter series.  When I first began the novel, that sense of familiarity, the sing-song style of her writing lulled me into such a feeling of comfort and security that the first time a character swore or lit a cigarette it was as if a glass of cold water had been tossed in my face.  Shocking!  But I personally became used to this new adult J.K Rowling.  Used to, perhaps, but never quite comfortable with.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Casual Vacancy.  I don't know if I would ever choose to re-read it, but it's a good solid novel that I would recommend to any adult or older teenager.  I gave it four stars, and feel that it is a solid Adult Fiction debut for J.K. Rowling.  I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Have you read The Casual Vacancy? What are your thoughts?


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