Friday, October 19, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Do not read this if you are expecting anything like Harry Potter! I have described this book to a few people as a story about a town full of Dursleys. None of the characters, really, are likable. Some are despicable. I found this book to be very timely during our American election season, as it depicts the battle between the "47 percent" and those that support them, and those who do not wish to help the less fortunate.

When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly in his 40s, his death opens up a seat on the Pagford Parish Council. (Pagford is apparently a mashup of the towns of Padstow and Chagford.) Soon a war of factions begins in the town, between those who want to keep the idyllic town of Pagford pure (not in my backyard), and those who believe in lending a hand to the poor, addicted, and disadvantaged.

J.K. Rowling is, as always, a great storyteller. This book starts off slowly because it's a great character study of the town's residents as well as those in the council flats in "the Fields," on the edge of Pagford. At first I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight. One of the most vivid and tragic characters is Krystal, who lives in the Fields but attends school in Pagford. Barry Fairbrother had taken an interest in her and coached her on the school rowing team. Krystal's mom is a heroin addict and she adores her neglected, developmentally delayed 3-year-old brother. She's trying to keep her family together at all costs.

It's clear that Rowling has major parent issues. The teenagers are at war with their parents, and many of the parents treat their children with scorn, apathy, or even hatred. Apparently Rowling's mum died when she was a teenager and she has had a highly strained relationship with her father (and did not speak to him for nine years after he sold off several first-edition Harry Potter books). The character of Simon (one of the most hateful in the book) is purported to be based on her father.

It's an intensely political book, based much on the fact that Rowling was living on the dole before she struck it big, and her husband once worked as a doctor in an addiction clinic. She has said, "The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash.To me, it’s heartbreaking. This is a book about responsibility, how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”

The book tackles drug abuse, child abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting (self-mutilation), theft, Internet bullying, infidelity, racism, homophobia, cruelty, and marital unhappiness. In fact, none of the couples are happily married. The teenagers take revenge on their horrible parents. It's not an easy book to read. But it has an important message about how we live our lives and our responsibility to help people by giving them a lift out of their miserable lives. Those who refuse to do so do not come across very well in this book.

The Casual Vacancy is not fine literary fiction, but it's a good story. I found the book to be highly British...not just in usage and culture but also in the way people interact with each other. Much is below the surface, never to be expressed aloud.

Some say that Rowling had too much of an agenda for this book, but I think this is an important book for our day and age. Mitt Romney is a much suaver, more handsome and trim Howard Mollison, believing that the hangers-on are to be cut off, as they are sucking on the teats of society. How you feel about that idea will probably indicate how you feel about this novel.

If you're interested, take a look at Jon Stewart's recent interview with J.K Rowling.

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