Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

     I’ve been doing the Reading Challenge from Modern Mrs. Darcy. I decided to start off the year by reading a book I had been meaning to read for a while. This book is not one I would pick, except it’s written by J.K. Rowling. As such, I wanted to at least see what she would do with a realistic world.

     Once was a time that J.K. Rowling wrote fairly optimistic, cheerful books. Sure, the characters had their fair share of trouble and heartache, but they ended up all getting married (not all together, that would be illegal) and having lots of awkwardly named children and reviled epilogues.

     The Casual Vacancy is not one of those books.

     It all begins when well-loved council member Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly dies, leaving a gap on the parish council and a growing domestic war among the townspeople of Pagford. Two sides emerge: those who favor keeping a slummy area known as The Fields as part of Pagford’s responsibility, and those who want to send that responsibility back to the larger neighboring town of Yarvil. Trapped in the middle are the children, who have their own struggles to deal with.

     This was a very hard book to get through, and not because it was badly written. On the contrary, J.K. Rowling’s ability to write vivid characters and scenes is even more obvious than in the Harry Potter series. Her characters are very flawed individuals, some with good intentions, some with bad, but all very human. She also manages to elicit some sympathy for them all. I heard some criticisms that she just pulled all her characters from Harry Potter, but I saw very few similarities. The only one that caught my attention was the relationship between Andrew Price and his father Simon, which strongly resembles that of Harry and Vernon (although Simon is outright physically abusive to his sons and wife).

     I think the hardest parts for me were the ones from “Fats” Walls’ viewpoint. He was a typical pretentious teen that believes he is being “deep” when he is really just being cruel. What made it difficult was that you saw glimpses of what he really was, but he was suppressing it under the mistaken belief that it wasn’t really “him”. Every teen goes through that stage, to varying degrees.

     It’s also a genuinely thoughtful novel. The representative for “The Fields” is the character Krystal Weedon, a troubled young girl who nonetheless has potential that only Barry Fairbrother was able to see. She fights tooth and nail to escape the horrible existence her mother’s heroin addiction has condemned her to. Her struggles are poignant, and a good reminder that even those who seem disrespectful, harsh, and thoughtless might be doing the best they can with what they have always known.

     The book is not a very happy one. It has some happy moments, and some funny, classic J.K. lines, but for the most part it is rather bleak. If anything, I would describe the opening event-Fairbrother’s death and the opening of a council position-as a crucible in which people's real natures are revealed. Our sympathies lie, not with those who are always good, but those who learn the most at the end.

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