The following are the 3 types of books I can’t resist:
1) Long, head-sized novels that take weeks to read and leave you missing the characters as if they were family members, or at least the cast of Lost.
2) Books that are pop culture talking points that don’t necessarily need to be good, a la 50 Shades of Grey.
3) Anything related to Y.A. authors.
In a sense, J.K. Rowling’s first “literary fiction” novel, The Casual Vacancy, embodies all 3 of these categories rolled into one. I could not wait to read it and I downloaded it the day it came out.
I had high expectations for J.K.’s novel. I did not agree with people who wrote off the Harry Potter series as entertaining fluff with no actual literary merit. I read them all (except #4, after finding it impossible to believe that Harry Potter would still have anything to do with the Dursleys), and found them effortlessly enjoyable. While Rowling clearly never spent time coming up with adventurous narrative structures or in-depth character studies, I think it takes just as much talent to create your own seamless reality without forcing the reader to meet you half way.
Plus I find J.K. Rowling herself fascinating. She’s talked publicly about her suicidal tendencies as a teenager, and her years spent next-to-homeless. She’s not too much of an artiste to admit that Harry Potter’s success helped turn her life around. It broke my heart a little when she attributed Harry Potter to her mother when talking to Oprah, saying, “the books are what they are because she died … because I loved her and she died.”
J.K. Rowling is not afraid to get dark. That’s part of what makes Harry Potter so good, and it’s also what makes her novel a long, dwindling foray into the minds of more unhappy people than you can count.
The Casual Vacancy is set in a small British town called Pagford, which is constantly looking down its nose at its neighbor, Yarvil. Most specifically, the Pagford elite hate The Fields, a place just inside Pagford’s lines filled with Yarvil’s needy, poor, jobless and drug-addicted. While at first this might not seem important, this class angst story is at the heart of the novel, so don’t forget the details as you go.
The first thing you realize about The Casual Vacancy is that it’s full of way more details than you can handle, right from the beginning. There’s Barry and Mary and Howard and Shirley and Kay and Gavin and Andrew and Gaia and Samantha and Miles and Krystal and Stuart and … just … so … many characters.
Upon realizing that the narrative plays musical chairs with all their lives at a fast pace, I resigned myself to actually working to remember details and characters and what the heck was going on. This is no kids’ book.
Despite the initial laboriousness of The Casual Vacancy, I enjoyed it from the very first sentence, which is simply, “Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.”
Poor Barry doesn’t get much screen time, as he dies of a brain aneurism immediately, but he’s at the very center of this book. As you go on, you realize that Barry is, oddly enough, being defined and fleshed out by the many things that fall apart in his absence. It’s a dark way to sketch a character, but J.K., like I said, is good at dark.
Each character is suffering from their own stagnation, their own family trauma, their own illness – there are not many happy campers here. The perspective of the book shifts constantly, like a camera flying over a small neighborhood, peeking into one window and then the next, letting a dialog between two characters expose the secret thoughts that both are having. I can’t remember many books that switch lenses so quickly and effortlessly, and I’m a sucker for any story that leaves no character unexplored.
Her writing remains straightforward while in adultland, although here she does try out more clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions than she does in Harry Potter. One of my favorite moments is when Krystal, whose mom is a heroin addict, invites a boy into the shambles of her house. Before he comes over, she puts up pictures of celebrities on a tiny corner of her wall, trying to create an illusion of normal teenagehood. There’s something very specific and sad about that.
I waited to read other reviews until after I had finished The Casual Vacancy, because I didn’t want to be looking for weaknesses and strengths that others pointed out the whole time I read. When I finally peeked at some upon finishing the book, I saw that many people were underwhelmed. I can understand why people might think this book is awkward, overambitious, reluctant to redeem any of its characters, but I liked that imperfection – it feels genuine in how angry and cathartic it is.
The story also deserves credit for being wildly imaginative in the breadth of characters it holds and the very different types of traumas they experience. Not that many pop culture-lauded authors can imagine a teeange boy’s inner life so vividly without it feeling like a silly caricature.
The political element of the story is the backbone that ties everything together, making a point about compassion and judgment that resonates well at a time when the country seems to believe people on welfare are lazy, entitled drug addicts.
I think, to be frank, there are lots of people out there who were itching for J.K. Rowling to fail at “literary” fiction so that they can perpetuate their idea that genre fiction, as well as Y.A. fiction, remain the territory of entertainers rather than real geniuses. The Casual Vacancy proves J.K. Rowling isn’t a one-trick pony, but a complicated person whose only choice is to find release through stories. And this one, while challenging, is a good one.