Monday, November 26, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Evaluating The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling on its own merits, without mentioning certain other works by that author, is a nearly impossible task -- but I am going to attempt it.

In the village of Pagford, the town council is split into two warring factions. When council member Barry Fairbrother dies, various members of the community immediately begin scheming about who will fill his vacant seat. In the ensuing chaos, secrets are exposed, careers are launched and ruined, and relationships are forged and broken.

If I had to pick just one word to describe this story, it would be "bleak." It's a very dark book, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I spent the whole book mucking around in the seedy underbelly of human nature.

The characters were, I think, the real strong point of the book. They were all thrown at the reader at once, which made it a little hard to distinguish them from each other at first, but I thought it was interesting how my perception of some of them changed over the course of the story. The main instance of this was Barry Fairbrother. He's not very sympathetic there at the very beginning, but as you learn more about him, he becomes more likable. Then again, perhaps that comes of being dead -- maybe we get the idealized version of Barry from his friends' memories.

I found that I liked the storylines featuring the teens better than the ones with the adults -- perhaps because I read too much YA literature? Sukhvinder was probably my favorite character in this book.

On a purely technical level, I found that the perspective shifted around abruptly without any clear indicators, sometimes in mid-paragraph. I'd be reading about Miles and Samantha, and suddenly I'd be reading about what Howard was thinking or doing, and I'd have to backtrack to see if Howard was there with Miles and Samantha, or whether the narration had just wandered over to him (and it was usually the latter). I never had this problem with (ahem) other books by this author, so I'm not sure why it was such an issue in this one.

I also thought that the storylines all intersected too neatly. All of the teens had parents who were major players in the plot, and there weren't many tertiary characters -- no casual friends on the outside edges of the story, etc. Even the other council members were barely even mentioned. It was just all so tidy, at least in terms of plot. There was only one small child in the entire book and he was just there for a big dramatic episode at the end of the story.

To add to that, I felt that Rowling tackled too many Issues. Drugs? Check. Rape? Check. Child abuse? Check. Political corruption? Check. Bullying? Check. Suicide? Check. Unhappy marriages? Check. Obesity? Check. Mental illness? Check. Teen sex? Check. Cutting? Check. Welfare reform? Check. Shall I continue? Every character was loaded up with secrets and problems, and it just seemed like too much. I think this could have been a shorter, simpler book with just as much, or perhaps more, of an emotional punch.

All in all, I don't feel that reading this was a waste of time, but I'm not entirely sure that I would read more adult novels by Rowling.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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