Casual Vacancy, The
But guess what, the British location, the plot that doesn't move (who gets the dead guys seat on the government council and what secrets will be unveiled)and way too many characters to keep clear in my head are all conspire against me. It's a busy fall season with lots of books coming out that I want to read, that I just can't make myself read the new one by Ms Rowling.
Perhaps one day, when I am in the mood for a long, thick meandering walk through a British village I will pick this up. Just not today.
I'm still not sure it was for me but I wonder how many reviewers read this book simply because of the name and the Harry Potter books, when this actually does stand on its own. Rowling takes us through a large cast of characters in a small English village (I think?). What this quaint place hides underneath the surface is very different from what it would like to be.
I was puzzled by some of the reviews that talk about a murder mystery: someone's death sets off the motions of the book, but it's not a murder. Instead, we see the lives of these characters: the angry, angsty teenagers and their romantic entanglements, the woman who moved here for a man who doesn't really want her, a household where the father is emotionally and physically abusive, the widow of the character who dies, families whose children are angry with their parents and parents who don't understand their children, etc.
Be warned, it's not a cheerful book. There's pedophilia, rape, adultery, physical/emotiona/sexual abuse, racism, prejudice, class division, drug use, political shenanigans, deaths (more than one, both natural and unnatural) etc. The political issues are just a small part of it (it revolves around the town's council), but it reminds me of what colleagues have told me--that the crazies can be found at the local level. While I am not familiar with UK politics at such a level, it would seem that is something that holds up for sure.
That said, it was still an interesting read. Like others I found the start rather plodding and too much set up for the characters. Once the story gets going though, it picks up fairly well. Sometimes I got confused as to who I was reading about, but Rowling does mostly a good job in fleshing out the characters enough so I knew who had what drama and why. The end plods a bit until the last 50ish or so pages, although a lot of the storylines don't really resolve themselves and there are regrets and wounds that may never fully heal. Some characters come out of it better. Others don't, but I believe that's Rowling's point.
Sometimes I found it hard to discern between storylines and felt she added another layer towards the end that left me a little confused. I was also surprised to see that other than dying, Barry himself does not serve too much purpose for the book and his family does not feature much. Which is fine (adding them to the mix might have weighed down the book too much), but it was a little surprising.
If you don't go into it thinking it's a grittier and darker version of Harry Potter but rather as a stand alone novel separate from her other work (it's separate from HP for sure, but don't know about the others), give it a shot. It was a great read for my cross-country flight.
The ghost of Barry Fairbrother haunts every turn of 'The Casual Vacancy', from posthumously released articles in the local rag, to comments on the council's website message board. Friends, acquaintances, rivals, and impressionable (and somewhat mislead) teens all feel the brunt of Barry in death.
'The Casual Vacancy' is really a tale of two towns, one with a crisp, posh facade in Pagford, the other in a constant state of decay in the Fields. Yet, the inhabitants of these respective places almost turn about face on public perception with Barry himself coming from 'the wrong side of the tracks' while many of the teens (Fats and Andrew come to mind) would suit the Fields as apposed to being Pagford natives. This was an interesting dynamic, while the characters lead the story, the sidebar of a struggling council wanting to annex itself from the welfare state in the fields and the associated ramifications were enjoyable and entirely believable.
There are many loveable (or hateable) characters within the pages of this book. For me, Krystal Weedon, the 16yr old girl off the rails was the highlight. Coming a close second is Samantha Mollison, wife to Miles, the air apparent to Barry's throne, a 40 something who has kept her looks and body in check. She is funny, down to earth, and wholly entertaining. I love her evolution from mother to almost rebel like status. I wont delve any deeper into the characters or further into Samantha as to not give away the story. Most people will want to punch Fats. I suspect Rowling achieved what she had set out to do with his character.
This was a change of pace from my usual read, I had little expectation and was blown away by how easy 'The Casual Vacancy' was to read and how shocking some of the revelations were. I think there is a little something here most people can relate to. Given there is such a large cast of central characters, any reader would be hard pressed not to identify with certain traits and mannerisms. I Highly recommend this for those readers who can forget that this author wrote Harry Potter and can judge 'The Casual Vacancy' on its own merits. For me, 'The Casual Vacancy' gets 5 stars.
Read more on this review on my blog: http://justaguythatlikes2read.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/review-casual-vacancy-by-jk-rowling.html
JK Rowling was not even fucking around when she said that this book was for adults. This is about as far removed from a story for kids as it's possible to get. There's no pigeonholing the mighty JK Rowling, that's for sure. She's like an authorial ninja... she comes out of nowhere, lays the smack down in a style of awesomeness you would never expect, and then goes about her business, leaving you reeling.
Even though I was expecting an "adult" book... I don't think it really hit me how different it really would be. I mean, like most other Potterheads, I've read the books dozens of times and I'm used to the worst language from JKR being mudblood, git, and bitch. So to see words like fuck, whore, and cunt being thrown about like it ain't no thang, I admit that it was a little bit of a surprise.
But it's fantastic. Really. It's a book that I feel like I'll need to read again (rather than just wanting to, which I do), because Rowling is so skillful with her pen that I'm not sure I caught every reference, every nuance or intended meaning.
It took me a long time to read this book. Longer by far than it should have taken, because I have a lot going on in the world outside of books. That scary place called "reality". *shudder* I'm in the midst of packing for a move so reading has been pushed to the back-burner. But even so, whenever I picked up the book, be it hours or days later, I was right back in Pagford as if I'd lived there all my life.
There's no main character in this story. It's told in constantly shifting points of view from several key members of the Pagford community. And at this juncture, I'd like to offer a little comparison. While reading this book, I had to take a break to read my real life bookclub selection The Time Traveler's Wife. Both books are told from multiple POVs, but Time Traveler's Wife abruptly changes back and forth between Henry and Clare's POV. The Time Traveler's Wife's POV switches are clearly delineated by a paragraph break (at the very least), and a header with the new narrator's name. Every time. But there were times reading The Time Traveler's Wife that I had no idea which person was narrating and would have to go back and check. There just didn't seem to be enough difference in their voices to really follow the narration switches without the headers available for reference when needed.
This is not the case with The Casual Vacancy. TCV doesn't abruptly change narrators, instead the narrative flows effortlessly among them all. Sentence to sentence the POV can change, but I never, not one time, had any difficulty following it. In fact, I'd read about 1/3 of the book prior to seeing JK Rowling in New York for her interview and signing, and this aspect was mentioned by Ann Patchett. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head, because I felt that there was something a little different about the narrative, but couldn't put my finger on it. After it was identified (Seriously, thank you Ann Patchett!), I could watch the narrative changes in action, and it was really amazing to see the shifts happen but at the same time forget that they were happening at all because it was just so easy to keep up with.
If I had one complaint about the narration style, it would be the use of parentheses. There were often asides notated in parentheses, and I really didn't think they were necessary at all, given the flowy almost stream-of-Pagford-consciousness style of the narration. The parentheses broke up the narrative and felt like an interruption to me. The info was necessary, but I wish it would have been worked into the text more seamlessly.
A little bit about the characters. First... Oh my. I would NOT want to live in Pagford, that is for damn sure. It may seem idyllic and homey and welcoming... until you actually talk to the residents. There was only one really likeable character in the whole story, and he's the one Rowling killed off about 3 pages in.
Everyone else is a complex jumble of neuroses and anger and manipulation and selfishness. It's interesting to me that the teenagers in the story, though having their own set of issues semi-intertwined with the adults' issues, were actually the more civilized among the parish. And that's taking into account the bullying, the ostracizing, the usual teen drama stuff that happens everywhere. Which, I think, should tell you something about this town.
One of the characters had this kind of affectation of being "authentic". He'd pretty much just do and say anything at all that he wanted, thinking that each action (or non-action) was the "authentic" one of the moment. But there were times when his "authenticity" seemed so staged and planned that I couldn't help thinking that maybe there was a page missing in his dictionary between "Asshole" and "Authentic" and he got them confused.
I really could mention something about every character - about how they lie to themselves as naturally as they lie to each other, about how they have more faces than Janus, about... well, many things. But I don't want to ruin it for anyone.
There are many themes in this book, most pertaining to pain of some sort. Mental illness, depression, addiction and dependency, abuse - both physical and emotional, death, etc, and the way that they were handled was pretty much spot on. Idealism has no place in Pagford, and we rarely get happy endings in the real world.
This was a sad story, in a lot of ways, but never manipulative. One of the parts that made me cry was so unexpected that I had to laugh at myself for it, because usually my waterworks are fairly predictable. My favorite character (what? I can like unlikeable characters!) is, of course, the one struggling so much against the current of Pagford's selfish will. I always root for underdogs. But, in this case, it was painful. It was heartbreaking to watch, because each scene kept escalating things, and the two forces (the character and Pagford) were at odds with each other, though not really directly and every time a step forward would be made, there would be two pushes back the other way. Honestly at times I wanted to reach through my nook to slap people... but it only would have made me feel better temporarily and wouldn't have helped the situation. It was just so frustrating! But I loved it.
There were moments of humor, but more often I was reading with a grimace of disgust at the horrible things that people can say and do to each other. But then, the mark of a great story is its ability to affect the reader, and this one definitely affected me.
Originally posted on my Goodreads account, April 2013.
*** MILD spoilers, but nothing that should ruin the novel for you. ***
I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book, but in the end I really ended up liking it. A lot of other reviewers advised, "Pretend it's NOT written by J.K. Rowling!!" Which I tried, but just couldn't. It IS J.K. Rowling, and powerfully so.
The book is definitely an uncomfortable read. It was kind of shocking to have my childhood hero's writing include cussing, "shagging," and drugs. But it isn't just shocking because of what we're used to Rowling writing – the book covers a lot of dark subject matter: rape, drug addiction, sex, death, failing marriages, self-harm, mental illness, guilt. Also, for me, the book had this rather nostalgic feeling of reading the beginning of a Harry Potter book, where the Dursleys are terrible and awful but you know that soon Harry will be able to escape to Hogwarts where everything is great and happy! Not so in The Casual Vacancy. The Casual Vacancy is reality. There are terrible people and the characters have to learn to deal with them or get them out of their lives.
Set in the quaint little English countryside town of Pagford, the book centers around the death of Parish councillor, Barry Fairbrother. Right away you get the idea that Barry is some kind of ~saint~ to the local population, except maybe for jolly ol' Howard Mollison. Howard is delighted, because this means he can finally help get rid of the blight of Pagford – a housing development called "The Fields." Nobody likes the Fields, because what started as affordable housing ended up being a community of drug addicts and "layabouts." Barry fought to keep The Fields a part of Pagford, as well as keeping the addiction clinic, Bellchapel, open. Howard and his crew want to sluff off the burden that is The Fields onto the neighboring town.
Pretty much right away you get the idea that the adult population of Pagford are all kind of creeps, in their own way. Sure, a few of them have their good qualities, but most of them are self-centered and materialistic. This is only exacerbated by the contrast of Krystal Weedon and her heroin-addicted mother, Terri. Krystal lives pretty much in what we who watch reality TV would consider a "Hoarder's house." Beyond her crass façade, you discover a girl who's barely hanging on to the threads of a happy home life – Terri is barely human anymore, and can't really survive as a person without heroin. Krystal wants nothing more than to keep her little brother Robbie in her possession, which is hard because Terri can't even get out of her clouded, drugged-out state enough to take Robbie to daycare or change his "nappies." Krystal Weedon's life gives us a stark contrast to the people of Pagford, who's lives and worries suddenly seem petty. However, Rowling's talent as an author is proved great as she makes us side – or at least sympathize – with even the slimiest characters in the book. (How many of you remember feeling at least teary when creepy mean Dudley apologized to Harry in The Deathly Hallows??)
Rowling did a really great job of creating wonderful, multi-layered characters, most of whom I ended up having a love-hate relationship with. And although I think the book was very dark and not what I expected from Rowling, the characters' personalities and interweaved stories made the book very interesting and worth reading – not to mention the intense climax to the novel. I think for those of you who are afraid of reading this novel, you should at least give it a go. You might be surprised. Just remember, it's NOT Harry Potter! I'm not saying read it like it's not written by Rowling, but don't go into reading it expecting an escape into a fantasy world of happiness. It's definitely not an escape novel, but what it is, is an extremely powerful novel. I would definitely recommend reading it.