Friday, January 11, 2013

Book review: The Casual Vacancy

You may think that I'm terribly behind the times, reviewing a book by J.K. Rowling that has been available for months and months and months. And you would be absolutely right. But I got the book as a Christmas gift just a few weeks ago and just finished reading it a few days ago. (Hey, I've got lots to do with my actual paying job and what with being a father and husband all the time.)

And so now I have the time to chime in on what I felt about Rowling's adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, the book that pushed her away from kid's stuff and young adults, and fantasy, and magical places.

But . . . I found lots of things that were familiar in The Casual Vacancy that fans of the Harry Potter world would recognize--even if they were disappointed by the stunning lack of Daedalus Diggle. And so, in what may be a grand disappointment to Mrs. Rowling, I'll likely refer back to her Harry Potter works throughout my review of her non-Harry Potter work. She may decry this as typecasting or a lack of creativity on my part. But I choose to think that it is in recognition of her core values as a person that are coming through, no matter the setting.


In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sirius Black said to Harry that "the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Such a philosophy describes the people of Pagford, the English village setting of Rowling's book. There are many people within the story who show a range of motivations, emotions (both external and internal), and points of view. Some are decidedly Dursleyish. But Rowling tries to allow even the people that you don't want to root for to have some personality that you might be able to understand. (Meaning, there is no one who is painted quite as badly as say, Delores Umbridge.

These people are all eaten up inside with resentments, remembered slights, personal grudges, and the constant back and forth of our petty, petty mind. As John Green has said in many different places and ways you have to try to imagine people complexely. What is going on inside people's mind is very rarely what they show to the outside world. But if we keep everything hidden, does that do us any good? (People should just blog more to let it out.)

Places and Events

Imagine the story of David Lynch's Blue Velvet but plopped in the middle of Harry's Muggle neighborhood of Privet Drive and Little Whinging. It is a pretty commonplace location, with normal people. But peel back their layers and you find the darkness underneath. Much of the story of The Casual Vacancy is driven by interior thoughts, fears, and past grievances. And the reader is left wondering if the characters are as aware of what drives them as we are. We can pity the people and (I presume) Rowling wants us to learn from their weaknesses as well, so that we can not follow their petty mistakes and prejudices as we live our own lives.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy turns on the vacancy of a seat on the Pagford parish council governing body and how the maneuverings to fill that spot reveal everything about the characters, how they view their world, and how they define what that world is to them. It is a small plot, narrowed down to a time and a place. But by going small, Rowling carefully examines the many small choices that constitute a personality.

Philosophy and Politics

While reading the book, I thought that this book was a clear reflection of this time--an England in the 21st century, stuck in recession, combating poverty, and the tension between the past and social transformation. Rowling comments on the political bickering that occurs in her culture and ours about both side of our political dichotomy. How should we treat the poor? How much weight does each of us place on the role of social complexity versus personal responsibility? How constant a role should government play in assisting the disadvantaged? Should it be a public effort or a private effort?

It's like lifting the October arguments I've witness on Facebook and reshaping them into a narrative of fictional characters. And that is where any power this book may have resides--in asking us to think about the actions and thoughts of these characters and then be honest with ourselves about who we root for, who we view with contempt, and how we want the actions of the book to play out.


In the end, I enjoyed the book, not because it was such a skillful story (thought I did enjoy it for that), but for the opportunity it offers to make me think about these social issues from a different point of view. I don't want to say that I've solidified my views for all time, because I think one of the points in this story is that holding a rigid world view is a way to get lost in the past as the world changes around you. I want to be sympathetic, and charitable to the needs of the disadvantaged. I want to provide them with a chance to get the tools they need to improve their lives. And I think layers of responsibility must come with those aids, to identify those who are trying to make their lives better and give them better chances to succeed.

Give the book a read for yourself and see what it says to you.

No comments: