Welcome to the third installment of our collaborative Book Club series with my sweet friend Whitney Ann. For the month of May, we read and will be reviewing J.K. Rowling's first adult novel The Casual Vacancy.
The Casual Vacancy takes place in the tiny English village of Pagford and is chock full of characters. No, really. There are more than 30 main characters in this book! At first, it was very difficult to remember each person's name as the book jumped between character story lines. Rowling takes her time setting the scene and introducing the routines and personality of each character, so it can feel slow at times. By the end of the book, though, I had grown used to the characters and their stories as if I was living in the little town with them.
Most reviews about this book say it contains troubling adult themes, like suicide, rape, violence, sex, etc. but those things really don't emerge as much until later in the story. Although the book starts off with the death of an influential town council member, the huge impact of that is not really conveyed to the reader until much later in the story. I don't think the death comes off quite as shocking as Rowling probably intended. It is not until later in the story when the effect of Fairbrother's death really comes to a head in a bang of heartbreak, death, and tragedy.
Andrew Price was my favorite character in the book. He is the son of Simon Price, one of the contenders for the vacant council seat caused by Barry Fairbrother's death. Andrew resents his father's domineering and abusive behavior and it is easy to see why. Simon abuses his wife and sons almost daily, both verbally and physically. Andrew is the one who kicks off a chain of events by hacking into the town council's website and posting anonymously as The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother in order to destroy his father's chances of being elected. After reading how Simon Price treated his wife and sons, I was silently cheering for Andrew as he took this brave, although anonymous step to get back at his abusive father. The anonymous messages quickly take on a life of their own and cause panic among some of the town members.
Ultimately, I was left feeling sorry for the residents of this small town. At first glance, Pagford appears to be a idyllic English village with a market square and central meat shop where town folk meet for lunch. The deeper you get into the novel though, it's obvious that the whole town is at odds with one another. There is a lot of back stabbing and pettiness. And, the casual vacancy caused by Barry Fairbrother's death just magnifies these faults even more, resulting in a crescendo of some of the biggest tragedies the town has ever seen. There is no magic in this book like in Rowling's other books — just stark reality that a town has to learn to come to terms with.
Ladies and gentleman, my name is Abigai Hobbs, and today I'm here to admit that I am a Potterhead. I absolutely adored the Harry Potter series as a child and teenager. Recently, I reread the series to see if it retained its magic for me and, yes, it did. So. When faced with JK Rowling's new novel, I felt both trepidation and excitement. Would I be able to read this novel without endlessly comparing it to Harry Potter?
As it turns out... yes and no. This novel is so far removed from the Potter world it isn't even funny. That being said, this novel is probably one of my favorite reads all year.
From page one, this novel establishes itself as an adult novel. It is not a young adult novel, by any means. Honestly, I began to wonder if Rowling was using the word penis so many times just to firmly establish that point. As Whitney mentioned, Rowling unabashedly handles some very tough subjects: sex, unhappy marriages, abuse, drugs, mental illness, adultery, and government corruption just to name a few. So, on the one hand, I felt like this novel was a bit heavy-handed of a declaration that "yes, I can and shall write adult novels." On the other hand, I also appreciated her bare-knuckle approach to topics people typically skirt around. As a writer, I know how much bravery it takes to write in certain voices and to face certain subjects. Personally, I find it very difficult to write from the perspective of an abusive, angry father... so her ability to take on that voice is so awe-inspiring. But then again, this is the lady who gave us Lord Voldemort.
Which brings me to my second point...JK Rowling's characterization is spot-on. This novel depicts a town and, as such, has a town's worth of characters. Despite this vast number of characters, Rowling manages to bring each one alive through imagery, action, and dialogue. She flits in and out of narrative perspectives, telling the story from Andrew's perspective, then Simon's, then Samantha, then Sukhvinder, and so on. Yet each character feels alive and vivid; you can easily imagine each of them. So, if you're worried, JK Rowling's storytelling ability has continued beyond Hogwarts. She can bring life and magic to humdrum everyday life, just as she did to her fanciful Potter world.
In fact, I believe this rich characterization itself is the key element of this novel. While the casual vacancy on the council seat is, as the title suggests, the driving force of the plot, the inner workings of the characters is the real story. Each character is consumed by his/her own reality, by his/her own interpretation of events. And each one is completely ignorant of the other's world-- often with disastrous results. There's just simply no way to reconcile these disparate worlds.
As evidenced by the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling is not afraid to write a slightly didactic story. While Harry Potter's message was ultimately one of prevailing goodness and innocence, The Casual Vacancy seems to offer a more pessimistic message. The towns people are each so consumed in self that they are oblivious to hardship and need, even within their own families. Ultimately, this results in terrible loss, particularly Robbie's death, an act which seems the antithesis of youth and innocence prevailing in Harry Potter. Perhaps Tessa Wall's harsh reprimand of Fat's callousness and selfishness is, in fact, the point of the whole novel: a wake-up call to other's needs.
So one final question: why the grim ending? Why is Rowling's message in this adult novel so different from her message in young adult novels? Are children incapable of facing the reality of life: that it sucks, that its difficult, that good doesn't always win? Is "good prevailing" just a fairytale?
What are your thoughts?