Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Yes, I am one of those. Without reading any of the reviews, I went and bought The Casual Vacancy on the first day it was out, from the giant stack at my local warehouse store. I love Rowling's writing in the Potter series. I was excited to see what she could do in another genre.

Here is what happened:

I was able to articulate that what I loved most about the Potter books is that she made a magical world seem completely reasonable and plausible. As my friend Janis pointed out, she wrote about Potter's England as realism, not fantasy.

I was also able to articulate that when writing about real life, as she does in this new offering, Ms. Rowling is equally capable at painting pictures with words that are completely transporting. I could see the prettiness of Pagford so perfectly, I'd nearly be able to get around if I were to find myself in that imaginary town.

I could also see the ugliness of the underside of life in Pagford with equal clarity. She pulls no punches to tell her story and, one can assume, attempt to wake the reader up to the plight of the carelessly discarded and ignored people in this crazy world. Though I don't mind sadness and realism in my reading, this was REALLY real (Lots of profanity, pain, abuse, mental illness, sex and drugs). And, as you might gather,  there is no magic to save anyone. Just screwed up, mean, abusive, sad, misguided, fearful, dishonest and selfish people on every page. Heavy stuff.

In the first third of the book it was nearly unbearable and I almost gave up, but I learned to just skip some parts. It was that bad for me. Yes, you can call me naive and weak-stomached. It's really more that I'm deeply affected by sadness and it will seep into my mind and keep me up at night. I know life actually is as depraved as she reports (this book sort of felt more like a documentary than a novel) for a lot of people. And I know we should see the worth of every soul we meet. That is important, but the way she presented it in this novel was neither motivating nor edifying for me. The depressing bit is the taste that got left in my mouth.

In the end, the plot pulled me in and I did want to find out what happens to everyone, but it was so very, very sad. I think it was meant to be, because I've decided it's really a fable. Or an indictment. She wants to remind the reader in no uncertain terms: There are a lot of people who don't get what they need in this world and we the people with resources and blessed lives  should care more and do all we can to help.  That is true. Did I need a gritty novel to remind me of that? Not really. Not when I use my precious reading time to help me balance out and cope with the very real world in which I live.

As I think about my strongest impressions, I'm left pretty empty because of the haunting message that I gathered from the climax and denouement that revenge and come-uppence happen more often than forgiveness and healing. There was little of either in this story, just a very fable-like list of he-or-she-got-what-she-deserved-because-they-are-bad. Realistic? Probably. Hopeful? Not so much.

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