Wednesday 14 November 2012
Devouring Books: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
I've been putting off writing a review for The Casual Vacancy for ages because I don't really know how to approach it. To mention Harry Potter (whoops!) or to sidestep it entirely? It seems unfair to bring it up, but then, would I (or anyone!) have massively wanted to read this if Harry Potter didn't exist? And so the questions come, and they CONFUSE MY BRAIN and that's not good.
Here's what I'm going to say. It's unlikely that anyone would have been that bothered about reading The Casual Vacancy if it hadn't been 'by the author of Harry Potter,' but I think it would have been a real shame if no one had. Because it's good. It really is. It's not the greatest thing ever written or anything and *takes a deep breath* it'snotasgoodasHarryPotter, BUT it's engaging, the characters, both the ones you love and hate, feel real, and above all, learning that JK is a MASSIVE Socialist was basically the best thing ever.
Plus, it made me cry. Which almost always means a book is good. Except for the monumentally emotionally manipulative The Book Thief. But anyway.
I think certain of the criticisms I've seen of The Casual Vacancy have been entirely valid- it does have kind of a slow start, for example, but this was somewhat evened out for me by the second half, during which I could not put the book down! And then I sort of appreciated the slower start which lets you get your head around all the characters (and there are A LOT of characters. Another criticism? Maybe, but I liked that) before you're plunged into the emotional maelstrom of the story proper, which may also be known as the most depressing story ever told. Which, obviously, I liked.
A criticism I can't really get on board with is the 'omg, there was swearing, ummmm!' one. Because, I get the 'she's just being gratuitous and trying to break away from her childrens book author image' argument, but really? The characters who mainly swear are those with a lower socioeconomic status, and teenagers, both of which are maybe the two demographics who are going to swear the most, and without any swearing, I feel like their conversations would have been inauthentic. And besides, who doesn't fucking LOVE swearing?! But all of this is really beside the point.
With the story itself, I was reminded, kind of perversely, of Twin Peaks. Bear with me for a second here. So, David Lynch, I believe, has said that the 'Who killed Laura Palmer' basis to Twin Peaks was essentially a macguffin to allow him to explore and develop relationships between characters in the small town setting. I feel like this is what Rowling has done here with Barry Fairbrother's death, and the subsequent election to his seat on the local council. Whilst there's no mystery about how his death happened (it's a fairly straightforward aneurysm) everything in the story emanates from that one event, and through it, we get a really clear idea of who each of these characters are, the alliances they hold, and, crucially, whether or not I actually like them.
And, to be fair, most of them I do, and even the ones I don't like, most of them I understand. In fact, the character I maybe related most to was one I didn't necessarily like all that much, but once it was revealed that she was essentially a woman with broken dreams and a sense of disappointment over how her life has turned out, all of her behaviour somehow became very clear to me. And I feel like this is something that doesn't happen all that often- relating to characters you don't even like- and I think Rowling has done an excellent job of teasing out every piece of information about every character, so that you know exactly who you're dealing with. It's kind of special.
So, The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter, and if you only wanted to hear that it was then I think your expectations for any of Rowling's future works are pretty unfair. Because this isn't Harry Potter, but, like the adventures of the boy wizard, it might just make some readers feel less alone, and more understood. While Harry Potter was a beautiful escape from reality, The Casual Vacancy is maybe a little bit too real, and hits a little too close to home, at least for this reader. But that's almost exactly what I want from a book. So, well played, JK. Well played.