Happy Sunday, everyone! At the moment, I’m tapping out this post at a coffee shop near my parents’ house, after coming home for the weekend to do some volunteering. We’re heading out for a brunch/lunch in a couple hours, so I’m hoping to get some writing and shopping done this morning before stuffing my face at a breakfast buffet, yum.
I spent most of my reading time this week totally absorbed in The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. I’m calling this a post of “casual thoughts” rather than a review because I read too many reviews of the book before I read it to really have intelligent or articulate thoughts of my own. It feels more like my response to the book has been deeply impacted by both my love for Rowling’s Harry Potter series and all of the reviews I’ve read of the book so far.
The Casual Vacancy starts out dramatically, with the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council (city council, essentially) of the town of Pagford. Fairbrother’s seat on the council opens up — hence the casual vacancy — and a battle breaks out between two factions on the council over who will fill the seat. The decision has big consequences for Pagford, which is currently in the midst of a debate about whether to disassociate the town with one section, “the Fields,” a poverty-stricken area much like the projects, and close a rehab clinic in the area. As the election and battle over the Fields heats up, anonymous posts start to appear on the council’s website from “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” that reveal the dark secrets of many residents of the town.
I’m one of the people, in the minority it feels like, who really enjoyed this book. Even if the author of the book wasn’t the author of one of my favorite book series of all time, I still think I would have made an effort to read it because the premise — what happens in a place after a dramatic event throws off a carefully calibrated equilibrium — appeals to me as a resident of a small town. Our politics aren’t as dramatic as those in Pagford, but there is something universal about the way problems grow quietly in the insulation of small town life that Rowling captures perfectly in both the premise, plot, and characters of A Casual Vacancy.
From what I have gathered, the characters have been the most controversial (in the sense of must loved or loathed) parts of this book. Many readers have mentioned how almost universally unlikable the characters seem to be, which I actually disagree with. Absolutely, many of them are unpleasant, but I also think the majority are deeply human and full of the kind of unpleasant features that most of us have and try to hide. And like in real life, it’s difficult to truly pick a villain or a hero. (This is not to say that a critique of likable/unlikable characters isn’t valid, just that I didn’t see the characters as so unpleasant that they took away from my enjoyment of the book.)
The characters are, I think, also where I felt like I was seeing J.K. Rowling’s style outside of Harry Potter. Many of the characters in Harry Potter (particularly the minor characters) are pretty over-the-top, almost caricatures of real people in the way that many of their physical and personality traits are described. I thought perhaps that style of characterization was simply a product of the type of book Rowling was writing, young adult fantasy, but after reading The Casual Vacancy, I think it’s clear that these sorts of extreme people are part of her style as a writer.
The characters in The Casual Vacancy reminded me a lot of the characters in Flannery O’Connor stories, particularly O’Connor’s use of the grotesque in her characters. They’re deliberately extreme in a way that inspire both empathy and disgust, or even have cringe-worthy traits that make them horrifying or sympathetic (thanks, Wikipedia, for the brief refresher). Rowling’s characters don’t have the same religious bent as O’Connor’s, but I got the same feeling of seeing characters who were very real despite their extreme features.
I wish I could include some more specifics — I’m afraid this post isn’t especially descriptive if you haven’t read the book — but I left my copy back at home and am writing mostly from memory. And, unfortunately, I’m also out of blogging time for this morning. I guess I’ll close by saying that despite seeing almost universally negative responses to this book, I really, really enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy and will probably be cautiously recommending it to friends that find some of these themes and styles appealing. Reading the book also made me feel more optimistic that I will be able to call myself a fan of J. K. Rowling rather than just a fan of Harry Potter.