Of Musings and Wonderings

{October 14, 2012}   Book Review: The Casual Vacancy – J.K Rowling

By now, this book has been out for a little over two weeks and has been commented on and reviewed more than most other books I’ve seen in recent years. To be honest, I don’t often read a lot of book reviews, except for those by other bloggers and the odd one that may catch my eye while browsing certain newspaper based websites. But this one seems to have been everywhere, and it’s caused a little bit of a debate, so I thought I’d add my own (obviously) highly valued opinions to the mix.

I want to start off by saying how much I love J.K Rowling. She’s a role model for many, and if it wasn’t for her (and Anne Rice) I don’t think writing is something I would have ever considered seriously doing. I lapped up the Harry Potter books when I discovered them, worked for the midnight release of the last book (I even opened the first box of them for the shop) and felt like a part of me died at the end of both the last book and film. Hell, Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood, and I wasn’t the only one. Many of my Uni friends, as it turned out, were also HP geeks, all of us able to sit and talk about the books, dissecting them and discussing what, exactly, made them great.

We were never able to quite pinpoint that. Don’t get me wrong; the books are amazing, and Rowling has the ability to draw you into her world, make characters you care about and create situations that have you gripping the book tightly, unable to put it down. But the one thing I, personally, realised as I grew older, and especially during the time I studied Creative Writing, was that Rowling was not a great writer. I mean in the technical sense; she’s good, but there are points where, sometimes, the style itself can fall flat. But – in Harry Potter – Rowling makes up for that with her wonderful storytelling.

The Casual Vacancy is her first book for adults, and focuses on a small English town. When one of the parish councillors dies, his seat is left up for grabs. The various townspeople begin to fight for this seat, though there’s the sense that outside the core group who have a stake in the events on the council, no one cares. The characters themselves are vastly different, and Rowling does manage to slip between one character and the next quite easily.

But…well, sometimes the change in narrative becomes distracting. There is no doubt that Rowling can, quite well, use a large cast of characters, but at times it feels like you barely get to know one before plunging into the life of another. On top of this, most of the characters are rooted in stereotypes, and on the whole they’re just not likable. It’s hard to find exactly who you want to root for – the lines between the causes themselves are clear, but even the characters who are on the decent and just side I wanted to see fail.

It sounds harsh, but even the ‘good’ characters in the book have few redeeming qualities. It could be argued to be realistic, but I can’t imagine a town full of horrible, nasty people with only the odd nice person cropping up now and then, and there’s little room left for redemption. The characters who do have a few good qualities are over shadowed by the nastiness around them, or reveal undesirable attributes themselves.

I’ll start with one of the few Pagford residents I did like. (As a side note, I had to consult a character list to refresh my memory. There’s a lot of them.) Gavin Hughs is a bit of a dick, but he’s faced with a girlfriend who just packs ups and leaves her home, dragging her daughter from her life, to be with him. His reactions in this are understandable, and although he’s shown to be lacking a backbone, he can’t really be blamed for not wanting to tell Kay he doesn’t want a relationship, especially as she starts to ‘settle in’ in Pagford. His fascination with  (spoilers, by the way) Mary – whose husband Barry’s death opens up the novel – seems, at first, to just be a way to avoid Kay. But then he reveals he’s in love with Mary and it is so out of the blue, so random, that my liking of him dipped. There’s nothing to show why he might like her, or that she may return his feelings, and to me it would have made more sense if he had just been using the widow as an excuse to push Kay away.

Fats is an arsehole, and that’s putting it nicely. A kid who just doesn’t care about anyone else – or who doesn’t want to care. His best friend Andrew never really tries to help himself. Of course, his father is an abusive dickhead who he can’t stand up against, but outside of his family home Andrew just seems to lean on Fats for his own identity. Gaia, daughter of Kay, comes across as selfish at most points. Of course, it’s completely understandable that she would have arguments with her mother, and even hate her, for dragging her away from her normal life, but even teenagers have some redeeming qualities. There’s little we see outside of her home life and Andrew’s fixation on her, so it’s hard to really get to know the character.

Her friendship with Sukhvinder seems based purely on the fact that Sukhvinder is different. Sukhvinder herself could have been a stronger character; she’s one of the few that seems to have the potential to be outside the horrible nastiness inhabited by everyone else, but the abuse she faces from Fats and her mother keeps her down. It’s understandable that she doesn’t stand up for herself, but it feels like she is little more than  tool, a stereotype of the bullied victim, used just to show the reader how awful bullying is. This role draws more pity than anything else, and for much of the book that’s all you really can feel for the character.

And then you have the Fields, the council estate that sparks off a lot of debate and anger in the book. I grew up close to a council estate, that has now been knocked down. Many of the kids there went to my primary school and, following this, my secondary school. They were my friends, and Rowling’s portrayal of the Fields, I admit, made me a little angry. Of course, the people who want it gone are the sort you would expect to hate a place containing people they see as ‘lower’ than them, so for the first part of the book I was hoping that we would see a more balanced view of the place later on.

We don’t. The characters who live on the Fields are shown to be mostly drug addicts, with no jobs, and kids who act up and misbehave, walk out of school and are uncontrollable. If it had been a couple of the inhabitants who had been like this, fair enough, but we don’t see the hard-working people who look after their kids well, or the kids who work hard at school and don’t act up constantly. There’s no balance in the place. In a story where the aim is to show how pig-headed and ignorant those who are against the Fields are, it doesn’t work when the portrayal itself comes off as slightly, well, ignorant.

The other thing that bugged me comes from the fact that it’s her first ‘adult’ book. That’s fine, and I have no arguments against wanting to explore more mature themes, but to me, that doesn’t mean every character has to swear like a sailor. At times, it feels like Rowling is trying too hard to make it adult, through the use of sex and swearing, rather than letting the characters act more naturally.

Despite this, I do think it’s worth a read. Like I said above, J.K Rowling is a good – if not great – storyteller, even if the writing doesn’t work at times. The story kept me gripped, kept me wanting to know what was going to happen next and Rowling is good at keeping you guessing. Like many others have said, I don’t think it would have been published without her name on the front. Still, it will be interesting to see where she goes from here. It’s new territory for the woman who brought the Wizarding World to life, who created some great characters and settings grounded in a purely fictional place, and it feels like, with this book, she’s almost starting again and finding her feet in the world of more ‘realistic’ novels. So, who knows, maybe the next book will be an improvement. Or maybe she’ll go back to writing about Hogwarts and magic. Only time will tell.

What about you? Have you read the book? What did you think?


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