Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November 9th, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

Posted by nliakos on November 9, 2012

by J. K. Rowling (Hachette 2012 eBook)

As enamoured as I am of the Harry Potter series, I had to read Rowling’s first novel written for adults. I expected it to be very different from Harry Potter, and it is.  There are no wizards, no witches, no magic, no pure evil, and no humor in this dark novel about the people who live in the small English town of Pagford. Rowling took care to include almost every human vice and neurological defect in her story: child abuse and neglect, drug abuse and addiction, prostitution, hacking, dysfunctional families (lots of them), cutting, rape, mental illness, and probably more I can’t remember at the moment. There are also a lot of extremely unappealing people. Rowling gets inside the minds of all of them (not just one, as she did in HP), so readers know exactly what their sordid, envious, angry, selfish, unfeeling thoughts are. As a reader, I need to empathize with at least one character in a novel, so I had a bit of trouble with the book because there really wasn’t anybody to empathize with (except possibly Barry Fairbrother, who dies on the third page). There were, however,  several characters that I felt very sorry for (like Krystal, Sukhvinder, and Andrew), but I didn’t actually like them.

That reminds me to the one similarity I could find with the Harry Potter books, and that is the teenagers. Krystal, Sukhvinder, Gaia, Andrew “Arf”, and Stuart “Fats” are all 15 or 16 years old. All are dealing with difficult home situations. Krystal is living in squalor, doing her best to raise her little brother in impossible circumstances. Sukhvinder, plain and dyslexic, is dealing not only with cruel bullying at school but also with her parents’ openly expressed disappointment with her failure to live up to the family standards. Gaia has been uprooted from her London home and her friends and brought to live in tiny, provincial Pagford because her mother is having an affair with a local lawyer. Andrew lives in terror of his father’s violent rages. Fats’ father is mentally ill. With the same skill with which she described Harry’s emotional pain and conflicting thought, Rowling gets inside the heads of these teenagers who are crying out for love, for friendship,  for autonomy, for something better or just different from what they have. For me, it was frustrating to watch them make some very bad decisions–but I could understand why they felt as they did. With the adults, it was harder to feel sorry for them. I thought they should have known better. Mostly they were just selfish, thoughtless jerks.

Unlike the Harry Potter novels, which I enjoy rereading, I doubt that I will go back to The Casual Vacancy; it isn’t a feel-good book. That said, I am very glad I read it, and my opinion of J. K. Rowling’s talent (huge) has not changed.

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