Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Causal Vacancy Review

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling


So, as with every Harry Potter fan, I approached this book with some hesitancy because it's been made very clear that This Book Is Not Harry Potter and I didn't want to read it for the sole reason that Queen Jo wrote it. But eventually, the story line piqued my interest and so I tacked my name onto the miles-long waiting list at the library. Had this book come out five years ago, I may have skipped it entirely, but my tastes have evolved and I've become more open to a variety of books.

All right, so Barry Fairbrother dies. On page 5. As a member of the Parish Council of the small town of Pagford, this leaves a vacancy, a casual vacancy as the term goes, on the council. While he was still alive, Barry was very much a proponent of the keeping the low-income housing neighborhood, the Fields, a part of Pagford. With his death, his opponents are now swooping in to try to have their wants filled. His death indirectly causes a crucible of latent anger between friends, families, and neighbors, to boil over.

Okay, so it sounds a bit like Harry Potter and a Very Large Book About Muggles in which Harry Potter Does Not Appear or Privet Drive, the 3/4s of the Year Harry Potter is Not There.  But really, this book needs to be viewed apart from Harry Potter because, once again This Book Is Not Harry Potter. So I'm going to stop making Harry Potter references now. Also because this is much more apt analogy:

When you play the game of council chairs, you win...or you go home and make a pot of tea and cry.

Because like Game of Thrones, this book is all about people and power--not just political power, but power over their families, or their friends, or their enemies. And it's about all the backhanded schemes people have to undermine their parents, or their spouses, or their coworkers, or their friends. Rowling also takes us through various points of views so we see the motivations behind each persons actions and how those actions are misinterpreted by others. We also get to see multiple sides of an issues and multiple sides to each character. I often found myself thinking one thing about a character, and then revising that opinion when the POV switched to them or someone else. Despite the constant view-swapping, I didn't find it at all confusing. Though I did, at first, have some trouble remember who was who and was related to whom at the very beginning because she throws so many names at you. And thing is, when you've got characters named Dumbledore, or Hagrid, you tend to remember them (or the gist of them) because they're so unique. But when I'm reading about Howard or Ruth for the first time, I immediately forget those names because they're so...regular (the same thing happens when I meet new people...just in one ear and out the other).

Another thing that Rowling's really good at is planting innocuous little plot seeds throughout the story and then coming back to them much later after you've forgotten all about them because no WAY was that little detail going to actually become something important...until it does. And I will mention Harry here because that's one of the things I really liked about reading Harry Potter more than once--catching all those little hints you missed the first time. She's just brilliant at planning ahead.

She's also just brilliant at writing. While Harry Potter (I know, I know--I swear this is the last time I'll mention it!) is written for younger audiences, it's written at a level that in no way feels dumbed-down or half-assed. As Casual Vacancy is for adults, she's able to go full literary steam ahead.

So, if you're planning on reading it just because Queen Jo wrote it, remember, This Book Is Not Harry Potter. There's drug addicts, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, cursing, cutting, sex, ...pretty much everything except magic. And while it may seem like she's piling this stuff on just to say This Book Is Not Harry Potter, it does all fit within the story. If you've never been a Harry Potter fan, don't shy away from it just because it's Rowling. I know this book's already gotten a fair share of lukewarm reviews, but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps my standards were already lowered because of said reviews, but it's still really, really good. While it started slow, it ended up becoming one of those books where I put it down and two minutes later I'm thinking about it again.

Anyway, the ending is truly one of the bitter sweet variety that is devastatingly sad, but also kind of hopeful, and it just turns you into one big ball of emotions (okay, so the fact that I've been listening to the Les Mis soundtrack in the car may have contributed too). 

4 Fancies plus a half because I'm still so damn emotional about it. 4.5/5

Read A-Likes: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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