Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling #review

I purposefully avoided most of the reviews written about JK Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, while I was reading the book myself. I wanted to experience the novel without any of the preconceptions of others. To a degree I was successful, and in retrospect I’m glad I made the effort.

The author warned readers right from the start that this wasn’t another Harry Potter. Unlike a large number of angry and disappointed readers I was vaguely aware of on my periphery, I took Rowling’s advice to heart. As much as that wiggly little childlike voice inside me whined and moaned for more Hogwarts, I fed it some codeine tablets and a chocolate bar and laid it down to rest while the adult in me settled in a cosy armchair over a cup of coffee to read The Casual Vacancy.

This is not a very nice book. Which is precisely why I absolutely adored it. That being said, I’m also quite happy to admit that if Rowling had not been the author, chances are very good I would not have picked it up. I am unashamedly a fan of JK Rowling’s, the same as I am a fan of Neil Gaiman, Storm Constantine, Anne Rice or Poppy Z Brite, and will give everything they write a fair chance even if they’re writing outside of their expected genres.

But more about why I don’t like nice books – they don’t come across as being authentic. Real life doesn’t have neat, convenient happy endings and, as much as it can be argued that reading is often a lot about pure escapism, I like knowing that there’s always a chance that the character I’m rooting for will fail. So, it’s down to personal preference.

If you’re looking for a rose-tinted happy ending, then DON’T read The Casual Vacancy. If you’re looking for a story where the underdog is likeable, DON’T read this book. In fact, there are absolutely no likeable characters at all in this story. Yes, there are some I grudgingly kinda like, but no one for whom I’d willingly don a cheerleading outfit. I’m pretty sure that if Barry Fairbrother didn’t die in the start of the book, some of his dirty secrets would have come tumbling out before long too.

He’s the real hero of this novel, and he bows out early, so we never get an accurate idea of what his true character is like. We end up viewing Barry through everyone else’s somewhat rose-tinted glasses, and he is placed on a pedestal, as the only resident of Pagford who was able to dream up a bigger vision which expanded beyond the narrow-minded pettiness of the others. What Rowling says, at the end, is that the world needs more people like Barry Fairbrother, and though I don’t want to spoil, I’ll suggest that in the end we do encounter someone who will step into the breach and fill his shoes. And it’s not anyone you’d suspect, so shhh.

I’ll say this much, that I was pleasantly surprised to see this character grow beyond the societal pressures.

As always, what I absolutely adore about Rowling’s writing is her characterisation. Her prose might not be scintillating, but, much like Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin and Stephen King, she understands the rare art of storytelling, and of offering readers characters with whom they can identify – who hold up a sometimes dark mirror to our own reflections.

We all know people like Howard, Samantha, Krystal, Kay, Gavin and Simon; people who are more often than not blind to their own faults. They lie to themselves as often as they lie to others, and act short-sightedly. They’re human, like us, broken and sometimes bitter. If anything The Casual Vacancy is a cautionary tale, warning us to be more aware of our interconnectedness, and the web that glues society together. Despite the tragedy of the human condition, the novel also dares us to hope, and if there is ever to be any change in the world, it must first start with oneself.

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